In the Shadow of the Cross
2010 7th-8th Grade Prose Winner
The moonlight illuminated the portion of the ornate cruciform stain glass window bearing the image of Jesus Christ, casting a cross-like shadow over the altar below. Under this shadow, Abbess Teresa stood in front of the altar, garbed in a crimson habit and holding a chalice filled with wine in her trembling hand. The entire population of the monastery, more than one hundred in number, was seated before her. Most of the monks and nuns assembled were surprised to be here, as this "special communion" was called at almost a moment's notice. This was quite out of character for the usually orderly Abbess Teresa. Among the monks and nuns gathered this evening was young Matthew, who was trying to make sense of this evening's hastily-called communion. Matthew was quite fond of Abbess Teresa. She was a maternal figure to him and, unlike many others in his life, she shared his more nuanced views of God's words and the Bible's scriptures. Matthew had been forced to come to this monastery by his parents in their attempt to gain favor with the Church and to mould what they saw as an unruly teenager. His parents often chastised him more for not knowing his place in the world. The breaking point for his family occurred three years ago when Matthew tried (with no success) to prove that the local bishop of the town was at the center of a major scandal. After that incident, they sent him packing to the monastery. "To gain discipline and clear your mind", they declared to him as they dropped him at the main gate of the monastery. On that first day, as he made his way towards the guest house, he ran into none other than Abbess Teresa. She brought him to the refectory for a hot meal and then took him to the dormitory, where she introduced him to the senior monk, Brother John, who was to be in charge of young Matthew's formal monastic training. Ever since that first encounter, Teresa had always been a kind soul to Matthew, whether it was excusing him from penance for his occasionally "heretical questions" or making sure he got enough to eat. Before this very moment, he thought he truly understood her. But her actions today, the wearing of a crimson habitat, her nervous demeanor, the hasty calling of communion, all seemed out of character and were bewildering to him.
Her only words to him, in a chance corridor meeting before the communion began, was "I must bear my soul today to God and Man. My heart's confession can endure prison's bounds no more." Matthew's eyes were riveted to the Abbess as she began speaking. "I have called you all here today on the briefest of notice and I am very grateful that you have come. However, the matter that I will discuss is grave and many of you will not look kindly on me after my words leave my lips. I must tell you a sordid tale of sin and deception, rooted in these same very holy walls where we live, sleep and pray." The assemblage gasped, but Teresa quickly quelled them with a wave of her hand. "I have made my confession to God himself before you arrived and He told me that it was His will that I share my confession with all of you. But before I tell you my tale I am compelled first to complete my Holy Communion and drink the blood of Christ." They all watched as she closed her eyes tightly and drank from the cup. Putting the chalice down she then raised her hands and began speaking. "Good men and women, I have committed a sin", she stammered.
Then, all at once, her eyes widened and her words were replaced by a horrid gurgling sound. Matthew and the others assembled watched in horror as she fell to the floor, writhing in pain. Her eyes darted wildly as if searching for someone or something. They stopped suddenly and, with what seemed great effort, she rose and grabbed a nearby Bible, only to fall again. Unable to speak, she began turning through pages rapidly, until at last, she stopped abruptly. Seconds later, her rapid breathing slowed and she was still. The onlookers stood in shock, unmoving, each unsure what to do next. Their stunned silence was broken by the clanking sound of the great metal double-doors at the back of the church as they swung open. Through the doors strode, in a most imperious fashion, Abbott John, the former senior monk of the monastery.
"I apologize for my tardiness, Abbott John began, "I was delayed in my travels by-", the Abbott started to say but his words were cut short at the sight of Abbess Teresa's lifeless body laying at the foot of the altar. The Abbott, a tall handsome older man with greying hair and dark black eyebrows, moved briskly to the altar and crossed himself. He knelt beside Abbess Teresa's body and put a hand to her neck. "She is dead!", he declared. He examined the chalice, broken but still filled with wineand carefully picked it up. He swirled around the contents of the chalice and then, drew a deep, deliberate breath through his long nose. "As you know, I am practiced in the art of medicine. It saddens me profoundly to say that I the cause of the Abbess's death is poison, wolfsbane from the Perennial plant to be precise".
Over the chaos of shouts and cries, Abbott John asked for silence and ordered all but the most senior members of the clergy to leave the church immediately and return to their dormitories. Slowly, yet obediently, the monks and nuns began to file out of the church. Matthew followed the others out the side door, into an annex adjacent to the main chapel, and then into the underground passage that led to the dormitories. When they reached the end of the passage, Matthew, stricken with grief, somehow made his way into the dormitory and collapsed into his cot. The events of the day had been most unnerving, so while the other novices slept soundlessly, Matthew tossed and turned on what seemed like a bed of nails. When the first rays of dawn came, Matthew decided to take a walk through the monastery to clear his mind before the others awoke. He came to a halt as he heard hushed voices on the other side of the corridor. Matthew recognized the voices as belong to Abbott John and a few other senior monks. "One of her hands pointed to a verse from the book of John: He light shines in the darkness. . . and her other hand pointed to Verse 6 and 7: There appeared a man named John he . . . came as a witness to testify the light. . She must have been driven mad by the poison.", one monk said. Matthew thought, The Abbess knew every verse of the holy bible. This cannot be a coincidence. A thought then crossed his mind. What if she was trying to send us a message about the name of her murderer! He thought for a minute and then remembered the cruciform window illuminating the hand of Christ. Perhaps the communion was not so hastily called. Perhaps the Abbess knew that, with the moonlight shining at that time of the night, the window would be illuminated and that it would serve as a message in case she was unable to deliver it herself? What if the hand points somewhere?
"Enough, Brothers, I regret to say that I believe I know who the murderer is. It has to be the young novice Matthew", the Abbott said with conviction. The monks stared at the Abbott in uniform disbelief while Matthew, standing at the other side of the door, had to put his fist to his mouth to restrain himself from shouting. "I saw him in the garden earlier in the day, I thought nothing of it at the time but now I realize that he must have stolen a Perennial plant from the garden and poisoned the Abbess's wine glass." The monks gasped at the Abbott's accusations some shaking their bowed heads, others crossing themselves. The Abbott stopped for a moment to assess the reaction of the monks and then pressed on. "I have been studying the two of them for a while. I witnessed that they became close …. unnaturally so," the Abbott said, arching one of his dark eyebrows. "Perhaps the Abbess was pressed to break her vow of chastity by the young novice and when she rejected him, he reacted, with fury and guided by Satan's designs. There is also his history of heretical questions that casts any pretense of his innocence in doubt. We must bring this villain to God's justice." Matthew heard the monks murmur in agreement. Matthew backed away from the voices and dashed off to the right, running as fast as his trembling legs would allow toward the exit of the dormitory. He needed a hiding place. As he left the dormitory, he remembered the boarded-up well near the fish ponds. He ran there, pulled up a few of the boards at the top of the well, and lowered his body into the dark opening. As he sat crouched in the cold, stone well, he heard the sounds of rats scurrying near his feet and the voices of monks outside shouting his name.
Matthew waited until nightfall and then, when he was sure there was no one near the well, left his hiding place. He gave a shiver as the wind cut through the course, ascetic fabric of his habit. He swept around the outside of the church, circling it, until he reached the altar's cruciform window. Just like the previous evening, the moonlight illuminated the hand of Christ, pointing in the general direction of the the Cloisters and the Scriptorium. Even in the jet-black night, Matthew recognized the Scriptorium, a building in which he spent many days copying manuscripts . Hearing voices behind him, Matthew dashed off into the darkness and across the Cloisters. Before him lay an oak door, one he knew well. It was the door to Abbess Teresa's private study, for before she had become an Abbess, she had worked here and had been a talented illuminator. Matthew turned the knob of the door and, oddly enough, found it unlocked. He entered quietly making sure to shut the door behind him and lock it.
The study was furnished with a simple desk and a stool. Upon the desk lay a pile of Bestiaries. Matthew strode over to the desk and something curious then caught Matthew's eye: written across the top a Bestiary was a dark, black cross. Matthew carefully lifted this Bestiary and began to study it. It was the Whore of Babylon, riding on her beast the Sirrush. She was a dreaded symbol within the Christian faith, representing all affairs, fornification, and sexual crimes against God. Matthew could not help but think that this bestiary were not left here by accident that the Abbess left it at the top of the pile for a reason. What could these mean? Matthew thought to himself. He pondered this symbol for quite awhile and then decided he had been there for too long. Matthew stepped forward toward the door and, as he did, he he heard a clink of metal under his foot. Matthew looked down to see a ring, with an empty socket, inscribed with the initials "AJ". Realization crept in Matthew's mind, as he looked from the ring to the Bestiaries and back again. Holy Father help me!, Matthew thought in terror. Matthew began to search frantically around the study, until he heard a soft "clink" under his foot. He bent down and retrieved the object. It was a small red stone, a perfect match for the ring he had already found. He continued searching, until he came across a letter lying on the Abbess's chair, written in the Abbess's handwriting, which Matthew began to read. He read the letter, once, twice, three times and, tears filling his eyes, he folded the letter and put it inside the cloak. The letter confirmed his worst fears, but he now had all of the proof he needed to bring the Abbess's killer to justice. It was then he realized he was not alone, before him stood Abbott John.
"The other monks will be here soon. Our time together will be short" his raised hand holding a large knife, with the sleeve above the knife bearing the monogrammed initials "AJ". "If you have questions for me before your execution tomorrow at dawn, now is the time to ask them. I do not wish for a man to go to the grave not knowing the truth behind his unmaking."
"Did she go with your willingly, out of love?" asked Matthew, his fists clenched in rage.
"Of course not, though it was my wish she would. I did so love her beauty. No, she accepted me not out of love or attraction but to protect you. Did you ever consider why you were not punished for your heretical views? She succumbed to me because the alternative would have been the severest of punishments for you, perhaps even death. I used her love for you to my advantage that is, until one day last week, when she told me she could break her vows no more. At first I was consumed by the fear of being exposed but then came an epiphany: I could rid myself of the Abbess, my accuser, and a nettlesome boy as well, a boy who himself had accused my brother, the Bishop, of a crime. When I learned of her plans for a "special communion", I knew that God have given me the opportunity to save the reputation of the church. So, in a sense, you did kill the Abbess young Matthew or at least the pure love you shared for each other resulted in her death. "
"I won't let you get away with it, I have proof!" exclaimed Matthew, thinking of the Whore of Babylon, which proved the affair which showed the two were together and, the most compelling evidence, the Teresa's written confession.
"Yes, you do," the Abbott replied, in a false fatherly tone. "But don't you see, your proof disproves Teresa's chastity; my proof is a testament for all time that she kept her vows. You see, it is really your choice: are you willing to sacrifice yourself for Teresa?"
"She was willing to reveal the truth, why shouldn't I have the same courage?" answered Matthew. "Because it was her truth to reveal, not yours," John responded and inched closer, knife at the ready. With tears in his eyes, Matthew took the letter from his cloak and held it over the candle's flame, watching as Teresa's confession turned to ashes, but he caught a glimpse of light out of the window.
"You have done the right thing, Matthew, by preserving Teresa's reputation. I promise your execution tomorrow morning will be merciful and that your family will be well cared for after your death." the Abbott said, "Understand", he continued chuckling, "My murder of Teresa was the in love of god". At this last sentence, the door flew open and a dozen senior monks rushed in.
"You lied!", one cried, "You, the Abbott, betrayed God, you shall be excommunicated till the end of your days!" At this, the monks swarmed forward toward the Abbott, reaching for him.
"You cannot!", Abbott John protested, "You would not", he cried. As he saw they would not relent, he raised his dagger, fell to his knees and drove it into his own heart.
Matthew stood before the new Abbott taking his final vows in the dying sunset. He spoke the vow of Chastity, Poverty, and finally, with a little regret, the vow of obedience. After the death of John, Matthew had been pardoned from the monks' accusation and the murder had been put to rest. Matthew was now looking forward to the quiet life in the Scriptorium and Schoolrooms as a monk. While a monastic life may not be the one Matthew chose, but it was one he was willing to accept.