They do not look like corpses, probably because of the natural mummification they were subject to in this specific microclimate. Yet they are real. These people died in 1670-1780 and were buried in this crypt. Still now, several dozen coffins holding perfectly preserved bodies can be seen in Cracow’s monastery of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance. The lives of many hide romantic, sometimes mysterious, and sometimes macabre tales of centuries ago – be it a countess going to a cloister and leading a modest life there disclosing her true origins only before her death, be it lovers lying next to each other, or a braid in a wedding dress poisoned for her misalliance by her own father, or a child buried with a fixed facial grimace, having most possibly drowned in slime. All these stories can be read online, found in publications or heard from a monk guiding us into the underground on one of those rare days in the year when the crypt is open to tourists. Yet what is it that we cannot see? What is the monastery’s great mystery? This is exactly what this story is about.
Brother Florian had always liked to drink. That is why he could be seen in many bars around the Old Town. He had a preference for wines and was by no means satisfied with stealing altar wine from the monastery’s larder. He also got drunk regularly in Cracow’s pubs, bars and sometimes just on benches outdoors. He would then discard the monk’s habit and wear trendy clothes for the young although he was not exactly in that age group. Yet he liked the company young people and as he was fascinated by distant travels he kept in touch with travellers from across the globe. Despite a rather strict rule of the order, the Internet is not banned for the Lesser Brothers, which is the case in many cloisters for nuns. So one can surf it, get to know people and sometimes meet someone in reality. The superiors do not mind. Florian keenly seized such opportunities and remained constantly in touch with several dozen travellers the world over. Yet it was not he who went to visit them but mostly they came to Cracow and sometimes arranged to meet him in town. They would then go to a pub, a bar, a joint. They would have a meal together and above all drink a lot. More often than not, he would not tell his friends he was a monk. To many, he was simply Florek from Cracow. After such meetings, the guests would leave and then keep in touch with him by email. That time around, however, things were to be different.
A meeting of cultures
Keiko and Hitoshi had a passion for travels and discovering in the Christian world what was so far removed from their own tradition. They were fascinated by old churches, Gothic monasteries soaked in semi-darkness, mysterious paintings and crucifixes as well as church crypts, often hiding thrilling tales of people long gone. Keiko and Hitoshi were senior managers in one of Japanese corporations. They were not a couple, yet their colleagues believed that Hitoshi had a secret crush on Keiko, whose beauty was extraordinary, typical of the most beautiful Japanese women. She was a mature woman with an alabaster complexion and at the same time one could clearly discern on her face some features of a child. Many Europeans would just die for it.
The young Japanese had quite a budget for travels during which they would discover places that fascinated them and which they described on their blog. That was the blog Florek came across and he began to comment on entries about medieval paintings and after some time invited them to Cracow, saying that was the last moment to see mummies of centuries ago preserved in a very realistic condition.
The journey from Tokyo to Frankfurt means ten hours on the plane. Then it is not far – just over an hour with Lufthansa’s regional connection, the first gasp of the smoggy air and Keiko with Hitoshi found themselves in Poland’s former capital. They were staying in a small hotel at Poselska Street with comfortable rooms, inexpensive by Japanese standards. They took one day off to acclimatise and then meet Florek the following day. And so they did.
Florek liked them straight away and made no secret of his monk’s identity. He immediately offered them a tour of the famous crypt holding mummified corpses. They were alone there as it was not a day when it was opened to visitors. Florek simply took the keys from the gate and together they walked down the steep stairs leading into the crypt. What Keiko and Hitoshi saw there made an electrifying impression on them, not to leave them that night and only to amplify over time.
A contract done at the Wedel café
After that unusual visit, they sat down in the Wedel cafe in the main market square where they serve handmade chocolate pralines. Eating them with delight, they started to talk about the monastery and its problems. It was 2013 and the Lesser Brothers did not have sufficient funds to properly protect the bodies against total destruction. The crypt began to get moist and fungus appeared on some of the mummies. That is why Florek had written to the Japanese that was the last moment to see them in their former glory. They asked why the municipal authorities would not save the site. The Minicipality of Cracow did deal with the matter but – as is usually the case with it – at its own sluggish pace. Unfortunately, the fungus was faster.
The young Japanese were moved by the story and asked how much money was needed to save the mummies. Florek did not know the precise sum yet he called his superior. The Japanese promptly received information on the amount to be paid to rescue the mummies. They decided to act and immediately sent the money to the order’s account. They set a single condition – as contemporary benefactors they would like to be put to rest in the crypt so that their bodies become mummified like the several dozen ones already there. By doing so, they actually declared that they want to lie next to each other after death, although neither had confessed to the other yet that they wanted to spend their earthly lives together. In a sense, however, that might have been done that very day in the Wedel café.
Florek exchanged several text messages with his superior and received his approval for the terms set by the Japanese, which he communicated to them straight away. On a piece of paper, they drafted a contract of a few sentences and signed it, after which Keiko reached for her mobile to transfer the right amount to the order’s account. After the successful transaction, they ate some more pralines with Advocaat stuffing and finished the coffee, then went for a walk in the market square.
Throughout the afternoon, they devoted themselves to the shared passion and saw various churches, paintings, drawings and sculptures. Then they wanted to eat something and Florek suggested a pizza at St Anne’s Street. They serve great pizza from a wood-fired oven there. The smell of the wood often penetrates the air at the corner of St Anne’s and Jagiellońska Streets. After a meal like that, one can always move on to one of hundreds of bars around the main square or further away. This is exactly what they did settling in a wine bar at Sławkowska Street.
Florek ordered strong spicy Pinotage from Africa and they started talking. He told them about himself. He came from the Polish region of Subcarpathia, where he completed secondary education after which he moved to Cracow to study. He studied art history at the Jagiellonian University but had never finished the programme. However, he was fascinated with medieval paintings and completely succumbed to that passion, visiting various sites, reading about their collections and thinking about the creators of those pieces of art and their motivation to be creative, their lives and deaths. He had also met a girl while at university and he moved in to live with her in a house she rented in the district of Salwator. She, in turn, was very much into dark but at the same time romantic music, regardless of whether it was Bruckner or The Sisters of Mercy. Florek then accompanied her to concerts in Bolków, where goth rock festivals are held regularly at a medieval castle. When in Cracow, they would also walk around the quarter together, climbing Kościuszko’s Mound and visiting the local cemetery situated on its slopes. This is a burial site of Polish poets, writers and other artists. As it happens, however, she met someone else one day and soon left him. It was then that Florek started to drink more and turned to God, which after some time bore fruit in the form of his vocation to become a monk. Florek joined the congregation of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance and was responsible for gate-keeping.
He was telling all this to the young Japanese couple as he felt so good in their company. They shared common passions and they were opening up to one another worlds normally poles apart. Keiko noticed a badge in the lapel of his jacket – a yellow triangle with black zigzagy lines and asked about its meaning.
– It is the symbol of our fraternity – was Florek’s reply.
– Of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance? – she wanted to know.
– In a sense.
Then they talked about old and contemporary times and how rotten the latter were, and how formerly people had lived in harmony and tune with values, regardless of their definition. The evening was passing fast and turned into night. Successive bottles with spicy Pinotage were being emptied and finally Florek rose saying that he would like to invite his guests to the monastery, where they were going to taste a special kind of wine. Keiko and Hitoshi were far from sober at that point as their small bodies were not as sturdy as Florek’s, used to Subcarpathian heavy drinking, so they were not too enthusiastic about the proposal. They wanted to head for the hotel and go to bed. Florek insisted, however, encouraging them with a strange smile on his face saying that on the occasion he would show them something they might never and nowhere see again. So they agreed and barely able to drag their feet they moved towards the exit. Luckily, it is not far from Sławkowska to Reformacka Street.
In a golden afterglow
They were walking in silence along the few lanes they needed to take, going past groups of completely drunk young Englishmen who simply popped in for good fun in Cracow using the sky taxi offering a direct connection between Poland’s former capital and numerous British cities. Yet the more they were leaving popular touristy trails, the quieter it was getting and finally the monastery gate stood before them at the end of Reformacka Street. It was closed at that hour, yet Florek produced a bunch of keys from his pocket. He was unable to fit one of them into the hole, yet eventually he was successful and all three found themselves in the dark inside. The gate-keeper was either asleep or not there at all. In any case, no-one asked them about anything and soon they were in Florek’s cell.
It was not large and looked rather austere. It comprised a small table, a desk with a PC, probably the only thing that let the Japanese conclude that there was some physical connection between the world they knew and that place. The rest was shelves with holy books, somewhat kitschy paintings of the Blessed Virgin on the walls and a huge crucifix, which immediately attracted their attention although most probably the consumed alcohol made them seem to see that the head of the crucified as if protruded towards them and Keiko even seemed to see that he winked to her with a painful eyelid. She tried to ask Hitoshi whether he saw the same but as she turned her head she froze seeing his facial expression. Then she followed his line of vision and saw two chairs where some monks’ habits with hoods were hanging. Their shapes, however, were far from typical. They looked as if sewn for people of miniscule size. On the sleeves and back, one could see triangular yellow signs with black zigzagy lines.
Florek caught their eyes and began to laugh:
– You think I want to make you monks? Do not worry. You will return to your corporation safely but at last with unforgettable memories – and then he reached inside a small refectory, opened its door and got a bottle out of it.
– I have promised you a special kind of wine. In our fraternity, it is used exclusively during great celebrations. I have nicked a few bottles from the small larder. I sometimes serve it to my guests, yet only those truly special, like you.
– What makes you think we are special? – Keiko asked – her delicate face was veiled in the semi-darkness of the cell.
– I had developed a liking for you already at the stage of our email exchange, and then you turned out to be people of great spirit and transferred money to the order. It is a magnificent gesture – he replied reaching for a corkscrew. The cork popped out of the bottle with a characteristic sound. Florek poured the wine into glasses. An extraordinary aroma filled the air. The Japanese felt almost dizzy.
– This is just the beginning – said the host. I suggest you put on these habits as you are about to see something unusual.
They reached for them without much thinking. They fitted them really well. Florek smiled and handed the glasses to them. They smelled the drink contained in them. That extraordinary intensive aroma hit their nostrils with double force. They took a sip all at once.
A peculiar glare appeared before their eyes. Everything seemed to lighten up and assume otherworldly colours. The kitschy paintings glittered, the crucifix also glistened with a golden-yellow afterglow. A golden hue flooded the room, and the holy books on the shelves were squirming, making black zigzagy shapes. It looked fantastic and was overwhelmingly beautiful. So they stood there for some time peering into the space whirling around them, just as if they had put on 3D glasses.
Florek took Keiko by the hand and said to Hitoshi:
– Let’s go, I’ll show you something.
They left the cell. Neither of the Japanese noticed that on this occasion Florek had not taken a single sip of wine. He was leading Keiko by the hand through a labyrinth of monastery corridors, followed by Hitoshi. Everything was veiled in a golden afterglow. They started to descend. The young Japanese were in a sort of trans, failing to pay attention to the things around them, but sensing they were going down and further down and deeper and that it was taking a very long time.
Finally, they reached a medium-sized crypt with yellow walls or that was just the yellow afterglow accompanying them since they had consumed the wine. The crypt slightly resembled the one with mummified corpses but was larger and located somewhere else. Most bizarrely, although it was the middle of the night, the place was filled with people. Just like the young Japanese, they wore habits, although highly varied in terms of cut and colour. The only common element was the triangular yellow sign with black zigzag lines sewn on the back and sleeves. For sure, there were around a dozen or so persons there. Florek led Keiko closer. He ordered Hitoshi to wait in the place he showed him with his hand. No-one present turned as their entered; no-one noticed them. There was general concentration and silence.
Florek brought Keiko closer to the person obliterating the niche with their body. When she came up over there, she saw sand on the floor, just like that on which the dead monks were lying in the crypt with the mummies. There, everyone’s head rested against stone. And here there were no stones but only something shaped like a catafalque, or maybe a small altar. Everything was spinning in the golden-yellow afterglow. Keiko’s eyes ran towards the upper side of the altar. What she saw was both disturbing and beautiful.
On that little catafalque, rested a mummy with unbelievably realistic features. It seemed that the person was asleep although most certainly they were dead. It was not a child, neither was it someone of an adult size. There were candles placed all around casting a glow on the lovely face of a girl lying on the catafalque. It was hard to say whether it was the flames and the entire afterglow that lent the face just that colour or that really was a face of a young Japanese woman of astonishing beauty.
Keiko opened her mouth exactly when the master of that strange ceremony turned to her. For a few seconds, Keiko saw an old furrowed face and glowing eyes. The monk held a gold cup out to her, a source of that impossibly intensive aroma which reminded her of something.
She wanted to cry, escape, and she extended her arms to knock the cup out of the monk’s hand. Florek’s strong hands, however, got a hold of the Japanese’s small hands from behind and before she could shout out, the master of ceremony was already pouring the contents of the cup into her mouth. A moment later, she lost consciousness.
Hitoshi did not see that scene at all. Looking around, he was standing in the place indicated by Florek. The crypt seemed amazing to him and as if transported straight from the Middle Ages. It was dripping with gold, or maybe that was the impression after drinking that peculiar wine? He investigated one of the side niches and made out a beautiful girl wearing a habit with the order’s symbol sewn on it, which he recognised as perfectly familiar. She smiled at him almost flirtatiously and her gorgeous eyes seemed to be saying “come closer to me”. That was too magnetic to resist. Once he drew closer, the half-beauty half-nun extended a hand towards him and it was only then that he noticed a gold cup in her hand, a source of the familiar intoxicating aroma. Hitoshi winced and retreated but at the same time someone’s strong hands got a grip on his small hands from behind and the contents of the cup started to flow into his mouth, and then he lost consciousness.
A secret fraternity
Keiko came to in her hotel room at Poselska Street. Her head was spinning and she felt omnipresent pressure and pain. Just then, she heard hollow knocking on the door. She dragged herself off the bed and opened it with great effort. She saw Hitoshi in a state like her own, or worse. They sat down slowly and began talking about the events of the day before.
Once they slowly came to themselves, they decided to find Florek and talk to him seriously. They went to the monastery for the third time and, to their great surprise, it turned out that there was no Brother Florian in the congregation. They were arguing they had been with him there the previous day, in a glowing cell and then in a secret medieval crypt but various brothers and fathers looked at them surprised, intrigued and – those who spoke any English – with care and sympathy. The young Japanese did not look great and one could smell digested alcohol on their breath. Hearing the phrase ‘Brother Florian’, everyone was throwing up their hands. They did admit that there existed a crypt with mummies but only one and that the mummies were disintegrating indeed and if they wanted to help, the monks would be happy to accept the gift. Keiko and Hitoshi were explaining passionately that they had already transferred a huge sum of money to the order’s account in exchange for the promise of their burial in that special microclimate. The friars explained that no-one was buried there anymore and looked at them with growing concern. Finally, one asked whether they needed assistance and said that he could call his acquaintance working in Cracow’s well-known psychiatric hospital named after Dr Babiński.
They refused such help, however, and left the monastery. They checked the bank account again and confirmed the money was gone. They also searched their pockets but could not find the contract signed on a piece of paper in the Wedel café. All that was left for them was to report to the police.
A polite officer at the police station at the Main Market Square received the young Japanese with much openness. It was great that he spoke excellent English. He took them to some room and asked them to wait. They sat down and looked around. Keiko looked at the desk and fainted. Hitoshi stormed out to help her but saw a bottle opener featuring a sculpted sign – black zigzagy shapes against a yellow background – on the top of the desk. Hitoshi had to support himself on the desk trying hard not to collapse to the floor like his friend.
– What would you like to drink? – asked a stewardess onboard of a Lufthansa plane flying from Cracow to Frankfurt.
– Certainly not wine – replied Keiko – maybe tomato juice.
– And you? – she turned to Hitoshi.
– Juice as well, no salt or pepper – he pre-empted her next question.
– Certainly – she smiled and began to pour the juice.
He was looking at her lovely eyes reminding him of something. Then Keiko seized his hand.
– What with Florek? – he asked her at the same time turning his head in the direction Keiko was looking. In a row next to theirs, there was a man in a window seat looking just like Florek, maybe Florek himself. He looked in their direction.
– Your tomato juice – the stewardess presented Hitoshi with a filled plastic cup and he winced, remembering the half-nun half-beauty handing a golden cup to him in the crypt and yes, it was she indeed! Now serving him tomato juice.
– Is everything ok? You are very pale – she asked.
– Yes, thank you very much – with a shaking hand, he was holding the cup with juice that he did not raise to his lips.
From the outside of the plane window, rays of the morning sunlight were penetrating inside the cabin, making for a beautiful golden afterglow.
Note: Apart from the existence of several dozen mummified bodies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a crypt of the church of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance in Cracow, all the other threads in the short story entitled ‘In a golden afterglow’ and the persons featuring in them are figments of its author’s imagination.