Chantal Schaul, 1999
He found himself in the little countryside village, the chiming of the church bells still ringing in his ears. As he turned over to the left, he perceived the small picturesque church, surrounded by fat green shrubs and bushes. The whole village congregation was moving towards the portal of the church. He mingled with the villagers and entered the church. Nobody appeared to care about his presence.
The interior of the church was dark compared to the bright sunshine outside. Overwhelming shadows were dominated by the shape of the cross, moving hysterically with the flickering of the ubiquitous candlelight, only softened by the occasional human shape of a saint’s statue. The whole interior was made of dark wood, cracking with age. As the ancient church filled with villagers, their whispers and the rustling of their clothes gradually took over.
The priest appeared from behind the altar, black-eyed and dark-haired, his slight body engulfed by his robe. Self-confidently he faced the congregation: “Brothers and sisters, Meredith Miller has unexpectedly been taken from us. Death is hard to accept. But let us not doubt God’s love. There is purpose in his ways. Let us sing…” The villagers stood up, staring at him full of awe, respect and faith. Some people were crying. The choir started singing “The Lord is my shepherd.” Nearly everyone joined in. In the midst of all sorts of colourful voices, there were two that stood out. One belonged to the priest, who gave a poor impression of Pavarotti. The other one was female and completely out of tune.
He was sitting close to Meredith Miller’s family. An old man, her husband, was on the brink of tears, his face quivering violently. A woman, who was even older, looked at the man in a despising way. She was kneading her rosary forcefully, displaying a hardened face. Next to her, a little boy, completely bored, was playing with the buttons of his suit and ripped one off. His mother, who was heavily made up, with hopelessly bleached and permed hair, turned round at the boy. Her black dress tightened around her waist and yawned at the cleavage, as she slapped the boy. Sobs echoed through the peacefulness. The father, suffocating in a suit too tight, scratched his head stupidly. The row behind them whispered. “Is she out of her mind? Just look at that cleavage!” Further to the right a middle-aged man was falling asleep. The choir started singing again, triggering off the painfully out of tune voice, whining with all its might.
The graveyard, too, was ancient. The fat bushes had made their way to the back of the church to encircle what they could draw life from. An old bike was leaning against one of the branches. The congregation was still inside the church, the hum of their hymns audible through the thick walls. Just as he had imagined it to be. Meredith’s coffin was standing next to the open tomb. He bent over it, opened it with some effort, and dragged her remains out of the coffin and into the tomb. Then he covered her with a layer of earth until she was hidden completely. He lay down inside the coffin and closed the lid over him.
“...Et spiritus sanctus!” the priest chanted, and the villagers sang: “Amen!” – “Let me remind you brothers and sisters”, he spoke, “that this week we will gather at the Daveys’ house to watch ‘Cemetery-Flower-World”. With a shuffle, the congregation left the church.
Tony had been lying in the coffin for hours. The oxygen had started to get sparse inside. “It must be dark by now”, he thought. He had become slightly anxious that his plan could go wrong. He should be underground by now. Maybe the gravedigger was lazy, or old, or he had something important going on that day.
It has to work out, he thought. And no one will ever know about it. He knew that his parents would never find out. It was the perfect plan. But doubts were creeping up, now that he was lying there so still. And then, he suddenly heard the roaring of an engine. It came closer, then was switched off. He heard a door slam.
The priest was carrying a black leather bag, decorated with a cross on both sides. In the darkness, he opened the coffin and tipped it to the side with a routine gesture.
Tony could just about restrain himself from shouting as he was tumbling down into the darkness. He felt the outlines of Meredith’s body underneath him. Shovels of earth rained down on him. When it stopped, he waited a while and managed to crawl out of the grave.
Meanwhile, the priest had heaved the coffin into his car, an old wooden-framed Morris Minor, which was standing at the entrance of the graveyard. Its engine was roaring. Tony saw the car. Out of an angry impulse, he grabbed the bike, which was still leaning against the bushes, and followed the car. It was moving incredibly slowly.
They drove through the darkness past the houses and then left the village. The Morris Minor crawled into a dirt track. At a safe distance he followed. They arrived at an old barn. The car stopped in front of it. Tony now recognised the priest, who was disappearing into the barn, dragging the coffin behind him. A sign on the door said “No Trespassing!” He sneaked in behind the priest.
The bright lights inside blinded him at first, so that he just about managed to hide behind a pile of something. It turned out to be coffins. He heard the priest speak in a loving voice: “How are you feeling? You must be starving!” Tony peeped through a slot between two coffins and could now discern the whole scenery. The barn was crammed with coffins of all sizes and hues, all filled with earth. Plants were growing inside, little cross-shaped saplings. One of the walls displayed a huge painting of a tree carrying hundreds of little crosses.
Tony discovered the priest in a corner. He was standing in front of a cage. Inside it was a nun, gagged and fettered, sitting in an armchair. Next to the cage was a small table, with a few bottles of white wine and a glass on it. The nun in the cage, was showing no emotions.
The priest spoke to her, looking at his watch: “I am ten minutes late. That damn funeral! You must eat immediately!” He opened his black leather bag and took out a large amount of eucharistic wafers wrapped in silver foil. Then he unlocked the cage and freed the nun from her gag and fetters. She seemed to be starving indeed, for she grabbed the wafers in a rage and stuffed her face.
Satisfied, the priest locked the cage again and turned to one of the coffins. Tenderly he caressed one of the saplings. “You must be thirsty, my darling. I can’t wait for the day when you’re big and strong. Oh splendour and magnificence! You will spread beauty all over the world!” The nun started coughing. In a panic, the priest hurried towards her and gave her a drink of wine. She drank avidly.
Tony started to get nervous. What was this place? Was this hell? It couldn’t be real, could it?
The nun had recovered from her coughing fit and had now assumed a more chilled, brazen and sarcastic attitude: “Did another one in? Don’t you think it’s about time to let me go? I’m really getting tired of this tear-business now!” The priest gestured towards the sky: “Patience, patience!” He became exalted and theatrical: “My Quercus Crux saplings will thrive with your help, and God’s beauty will be omnipresent!” He abruptly looked at the nun with distrustful eyes: “You understand that I have to fulfil my mission, don’t you? The nun rolled her eyes and whispered: “Barking.” The priest went on: “If only I had been elected as a minister of culture! All this secrecy wouldn’t have been necessary. But God moves in mysterious ways.” The nun sighed: “We all have our crosses to bear.”
Meanwhile, a strange instrument had materialised in the priest’s hand. It was composed of two miniature basins, connected together and tied to a white strap. At the base of each basin a tiny drainpipe was leading downwards. In a childlike enthusiasm, the priest attached it to the nun’s face, in a way that one basin was situated under each eye. He then put the ends of the drainpipes into a watering can that was standing on the floor next to the nun’s chair. Finally he placed a hat on the nun’s head. Two strings were tied to it, holding two halved onions just above the nun’s eyes. Immediately the nun’s eyes started to water and her tears flowed through the pipes into the watering can.
Tony had grown impatient. If he wasn’t dead already, he wanted to be so soon enough. If, on the other hand, he was dead, and this was hell, he wanted to be certain of it. He left his hiding place and approached the priest, who was completely absorbed in watering the cross-saplings, and didn’t notice him. “I want my coffin back!” he shouted. The priest, utterly surprised, whirled around. He quickly recovered from his shock, but wasn’t able to hide his surprise: “Coffin?” Tony pointed at the coffin. The priest defended himself: “Your coffin? That’s not your coffin!” – “I stole it first. It’s mine.” Tony replied. “You don’t need a coffin! You’re alive!” – “Thanks to you!” Tony answered sourly. He got hold of the coffin and started to drag it, but the priest jumped at him, trying to stop him. Confronted with Tony’s fist, the priest took a step backwards. “For God’s sake!” Tony screamed, “I need this coffin! Haven’t you got enough of them already?” The priest reflected for a moment, and then became very nice and friendly: “Take a seat, young man. I’ll explain something to you. Please! I won’t take long.” Sighing, Tony sat down on the brink of a coffin. With a worried face, the priest hurried towards him to check whether he was crushing a plant. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Tony, who was looking at him expectantly, but still angry.
Exalted, the priest set off: ”This is my holy nursery. I am growing the miraculous Quercus crux trees, developed by myself.” – “Why?” Tony asked, pointing at the painting. – “Don’t you see? The beauty!” Gesturing theatrically, the priest went on: “I will make the world beautiful! My trees will be growing everywhere, spreading bliss and splendour, and everyone will look up at them and admire them!” Tony noticed in the corner of his eye that the nun was rolling her eyes again. “And those plants can’t grow in a normal pot.” he replied with a sarcastic undertone. The priest smiled enthusiastically, missing his sarcasm: “Exactly, exactly! You see, my specially developed Quercus Crux seeds will only thrive in a coffin in which a dead body has been lying for three days. Can’t you see the magnificence of it all?” Tony couldn’t, and didn’t make an effort to hide the fact. The nun was shaking her head discretely. “And those holy plants absolutely need the tears of a nun in order to grow?” – “Yes, yes, young man!” the priest enthused. My delicate plants will only flourish if they are watered with the tears of a nun. Can you see now? The marvel, the prodigy! God will bless me for carrying out this wonderful mission!”
Tony had lost his patience now. “I have listened to your story. Can I please have my coffin now and leave? The priest realised how hopeless the boy was. He stopped being friendly and assumed an attitude of ruthlessness: “Now, you do understand that I can’t have obstacles like you in my path, don’t you?” As Tony got hold of the coffin and started dragging it towards the door, the priest lost his patience. He hurried towards a wooden chest, took a knife from it, ran towards Tony and gestured wildly with it. Tony hit the priest’s arm with his fist and made him drop the knife. Tony punched his face. The priest fell backwards, knocked his head on the corner of a coffin and sagged down to the ground.
Tony got hold of the coffin and left, ignoring the muffled shrieks of the nun. He didn’t realise she was still locked up in her cage. No more disturbances, he thought. He didn’t see the blood flowing out of the priest’s mouth and ears either.
When it started to dawn, Tony was back in the graveyard again. He had dug a hole for the coffin, lay down inside and closed the lid. “At last. No more intrusions”, he whispered to himself.
Some time passed. He felt his breathing getting calmer. Eventually, he heard someone approach.
The old gravedigger was on his way. He was drunk and shook his head in disbelief as he saw the coffin next to the open tomb. Didn’t the priest say…?
He moved the coffin moved, but far too quickly. With a thump it landed on its side in the open tomb. Tony couldn’t help groaning.
The gravedigger wasn’t sure if he had heard something. He had heard about cases of suspended animation. Wouldn’t it be nice if he stumbled across something like that? Would they put his photo in the papers? Eagerly he forced the coffin lid open with his shovel.
When Tony couldn’t believe that someone was trying to force the coffin open. How was this possible? Couldn’t they just leave him alone? Next time he would jump into a big river, or even better, into the sea, so that no one could save him by mistake.
The gravedigger stared at Tony, who was blinking at him in the harsh sunlight. He gasped for air several times and collapsed on top of Tony. After a moment’s consternation, Tony crawled out from underneath the old man. He was reeking of alcohol. Tony went to the station and took the next train home.
A few days later, the congregation of the village was sitting in the Davey’s living room, watching “Cemetery-Flower-World”. On the screen three middle-aged women, wearing flowery dresses and holding big bunches of flowers, stood in front of an excessively decorated grave, in an extremely bright sunshine. In high-pitched voices they sang: “Cemetery-Cemetery-Cemetery-Cemetery-Flower-World”. Some of the women in the living room were singing along. Children were playing in a corner.
The TV presenter, an elderly man, started talking to his imaginary audience: “This week we are going to find out why it is that sometimes flowers grow unevenly on our family graves. At the end of the day, it is not a pretty sight, as we can see in this example.” He showed a grave where the outlines of the coffins were visible in the growth of the flowers. “The main reason for this uneven growth is that the coffins have been put carelessly at varying levels under the ground.”
“Oh, I bet our old gravedigger did that, bless him.” – “Well, he can’t do any damage now,” said one of the elderly women. “I’ll never forgive him for what he has done to my sister”, Meredith’s sister said. “What exactly happened?” a younger woman inquired. “I suppose we’ll never know exactly. The fact is that she was found in the ground, underneath the open coffin where they found Jeffrey.” A general “oh” filled the living room.
The TV speaker was still talking: “So, my advice is: the next time when a dear member of your family has passed away, why not have a little word with your gravedigger and explain your worries to him? I’m sure that he will not be deaf to your pleas.”
A middle-aged woman entered the room. “They still haven’t found him. He hasn’t turned up here, has he?” They all looked at each other, shaking their heads. A gossip said in a guttural voice: “It’s what I’ve always said! The priest is going to run off with a woman, I’ve said. And was I right?” With satisfaction, she added: “I knew it all along, but of course no one ever listens to me.” A shy petite nodded. Then the subject was changed.
Tony was sitting in the kitchen, reading a newspaper. An article had attracted his attention. It said:
“... Father Ernest vanished on 24th June. The police were searching for him for almost two weeks, when two boys found his corpse in a barn outside the village. The children have been deeply traumatised and will have to go through therapy. Inside a cage another corpse, that of a nun, was found. A large number of coffins filled with earth and withered plants were also discovered inside the barn. The police are still looking for clues as to…”
Tony’s mother came in. “Have you decided whether you are coming with us to see Aunt Catherine?” she asked. He reflected for a moment. “No, I think I’m going to drive to the beach with Steven.” – “All right then, but please don’t spend the night there again.” He shook his head.