By Sean Weeks
A monk’s habit is old purity – Latin ciphers steeped in martyrs. It is during the Daily Labor that Virgilio feels this history become hard. Perhaps it is the sun on the black cloth, the extra weight on the bent of his back as he leans into the hoe, or the accumulation of disturbed dust on the habit. Or perhaps, as Virgilio likes to think, it is alignment with history: as he works the simple soil he becomes interchangeable with a monk from a thousand years ago.
Despite this sensation, he can’t ignore the burning weight of stubble on a chin unaccustomed to it, the crumbly flecks of skin on his raw lips, and an empty stomach that drives his strength inward.
But these factors only focus the alignment.
From the foot of the rocky spur, Virgilio stops and looks to the abbey of Monte Cassino. The distance allows him to resolve faint shadows in the windows into flickering bodies: a sister or a brother rushing past for a new Eucharist. He pictures Abbot Diamare in one of the two spires that jut above the broad flank of the abbey. The Abbot’s glasses twinkle in the early midday sun. With a stationary image, the illusion falls apart. The windows are empty.
He seeds the furrows he has made in the soil. He drops the tools, leaves the bag of seed and the hoe where they are, confident they won’t be stolen. He walks from the edge of the field to a parked car.
The car is as large as the one Mussolini uses for his parades, or so the owner told Virgilio when he got it two years ago. The vehicle has overlapping curves that start around its wheels, form a narrow “nose” for the engine, and finish in a wave-like arc from its windshield to its back. Dirt, some of it old and some new, rings it from the middle and down. Its size, almost half that of a tank, makes it ugly. Viewed from the side, it’s like an engorged roach against the rolling countryside.
Cars are despicable to Virgilio, but he treats the thing with a finicky hand. The car was loaned by a wealthy vineyard owner, Giuseppe, before the town of Cassino was abandoned. Giuseppe was a miraculously successful vintner, and a man whose cheeks were so rosy that it made it impossible to tell his sobriety. He had seemed to guess that Virgilio would stay behind, and approached him after the monk finished helping an old butcher salt and store meat.
“Brave man,” he said, sidling up. “Someone’s got to see we come back to something, eh?”
“I am continuing,” Virgilio had replied. He was terse – a part of his distrust of uncouth Italian.
“Does the war respect that?”
“Services can’t be held on the side of the road,” said Virgilio.
“Aren’t there other houses of God?”
Virgilio smiled. “I did not see God in those houses.”
“If your brothers thought the same, I’d return to a cellar of good stock and few cobwebs. Brave man. Good man. I’d stay with you, but….” Giuseppe twitched his bushy head over to where his equally hirsute wife and daughter were packing the family car.
“Papa,” said the daughter from under a canvas bag, “are you going to help?”
Giuseppe snarled and waved the child away. “Pack, girl! Papa’s doing business!”
“I see that you’re busy, and it’s nearly time for my Offices…” said Virgilio.
Giuseppe shrugged. “Pity, Brother Moretti.” He turned, stopped, glanced at Virgilio over his shoulder, fished around in his trouser pockets for a set of keys, and offered them to the monk. “We can’t take the second car anyway, so you might use it. There’s a bottle of this year’s wine in it as well. I’ve a bet with a fat Roman that the Germans won’t steal it. Take care of it, won’t you?”
That was how Virgilio got the car. He doesn’t thank God, because the charity of it is suspect due to the bottle of wine in the front seat. Take care of the car or the bet? He respects the thing nonetheless.
“Est quid est,” he says. The rumble of the engine overwhelms this sentiment and fills his lungs with oily air.
The car struggles up a road that cuts across the Monte’s carpet of trees. At around a quarter of the way, Virgilio must leave the car behind because of the incline. He stashes the wine in the folds of his robe and ascends on foot.
The abbey is its own nation. It is segmented by thick boxes, and newly overgrown terraces and gardens hug the boxes’ outer limits – limits that would be called “walls” by someone who thinks them a means of hiding. Thus Rome had walls; thus China had its walls; the abbey has no walls. He was sixteen when he was admitted into the Benedictine Order and learned this truth. That truth shakes him and leaves him feverish at thirty-one.
Virgilio turns to the countryside, to the hilltops that sister Cassino. The town and its bright pastels lie at the cusp of one of the many bowled valleys, with a small circle of cleared pasture carved out from the endless stretches of forest. Trees obscure most of them, but the German and Italian brigades and their artillery can be spotted as brief tinges of gray, black, and beige. The monk has observed the serpentine formation of troops for weeks now, as they rally to the spine of Italy. He expects the Allies to arrive at any moment.
It’s odd to him that an unspoken agreement exists to kill – something similar to setting up goalposts.
He enters the abbey and makes his way to the basilica. Gold filigree laces the halls, decadence held not to snuff out the light of service but to keep it in. Patriarchs and matriarchs preside in their touch with an angel, Boticelli’s distant melancholy on their faces. In one tableau, Jesus is forever frozen between a boat and the shore.
He reaches the plain wooden stands near the altar that are, in their plainness, made to show so that the gold and the paintings are not for human comfort. He brandishes the book of hymns nestled in the corner of the box and starts the Vespers.
“Deus in audiutorium meum intende,” he begins. “Domine ad….”
His voice squeaks and creaks and cracks. He has not had water for three days because his Labors have led him away from the well. He wobbles and lurches forward from time to time, as he has not managed food for ten days since the larders spoiled.
Eventually, the chant ends and the psalms begin. Singing drains him even further: Gloria Patri and Natus Erat wear his throat to rusty gears that grind against the line between his head and his heart and make him giddy. Psalms turn to hymns, like water to wine, and then antiphon, until the basilica swims in gold. Blue apostle eyes become shining augurs, and their audiences explode into gold flame. Jesus walks on solid ground or a lake of fire, and tears become sweat. Virgilio’s fingers clamp to the box and his elbows bend. He feels his muscles and bones clash with and yet support one another in protest against his mind. Then the Little Chapter, then preces, then dervish of sacrament, and then done and Silent Prayer.
The words flow out of Virgilio. He knows that every word is correct, even though delirium distracts him.
He holds the haze of his half-conscious vision. He doesn’t enjoy pain, but cherishes the illusion his eyes give him because it is all the joy he has. The fresco above, Saint Benedict surrounded by popes and priests, becomes so large that he can believe it could displace the sky, and his awareness of self so small that he can no longer know his own face and becomes the cowled figure at the Saint’s left hand, and….
A beloved weight settles. Delirium overcomes him. One gaunt cheek smacks the tile and he collapses into sleep.
The scent of brackish dirt punctures Virgilio’s unconsciousness. His eyelids flit up. He is staring at a chunk of Benedict’s hand.
He glances at the fresco overhead to catch sight of an American plane flickering past the gap in the Saint’s side.
A roar, and the far end of the basilica crashes in a burst of dust.
Virgilio is on his feet in a second of flurried limbs. He rushes to the fore of the basilica and through to the main cloister.
Another roar blasts Virgilio off his feet. Once he gets up, tendrils of fire extend from fractured columns and ash plugs his nose.
The monk runs past Benedict to the very back of the abbey, until he reaches a vestibule entrance. He opens the door with limp hands and fumbles through the darkness behind it. The mosaics above the stairs to the crypt and the gold inlay beneath provide some faint guidance, but not much. The torches have long since guttered out from neglect. The explosions fade to simple drum beats.
Virgilio can make out the first step. He puts his foot out, misjudges depth, and slips down the stairs to land facedown on rough stone.
From a looseness of skin around his arm, he knows that he’s cut himself. He places two fingers below the wound. A steadily increasing trickle of blood passes over his nails.
He emits a wheeze for a laugh. “The stairs. After those bombs?”
After Virgilio runs out of breath and his laugh drops to a clammy panting, he raises his head to a corridor of glimmers. He vaguely remembers the mosaics that exist to him in the daytime: Madonna and child; crucifix with cherubim on every axis; suns amongst stars. By the burnish, he can make out a few slight bumps in worn alcoves.
Cradling his arm, he crawls to one of the alcoves and sets his fingers to scurry like spiders around the objects. They are what he remembers them to be – pots, and one, if he is right, in linen. He brushes the slightest suggestion of cloth and tears at it. A crash next to him, a puff of dank, and he comes away with the linen.
“Shit!” Virgilio recoils, but he already feels the ancient, airborne grime of the pot layer his right arm.
Something briefly bumps against his thigh – Giuseppe’s wine, remarkably undamaged. Virgilio fishes it out and grips the linen with his teeth. He steadies the bottle between his thighs, grabs a large, sharp-ended pottery shard, and uses the point to gouge out the wine cork. He sloshes wine over the gash and bandages it as well as his teeth and shard-filled hand can manage.
Virgilio whiffs the air; it reeks of mildew and vinegar. He loosens the shutters over his ears; there is a thump like a giant heart. Perhaps, Virgilio muses, the shelling is the thumping of a mythical beast making love to the countryside.
“Shit,” Virgilio says to that idea and because, well, everything is shit. For this only Italian, not Latin, will do.
Brother Virgilio knows exactly how much life he’s wasted in the dark: exactly a day and a half, with the hours not meaning much because he’s never really counted by them. Amidst inexorable boredom, he has not taken a sip of the callow wine – partially because of its vintage, partially for temptation, and partially because of a disturbing notion about the origins of Giuseppe’s hair.
Shelling stopped half a day ago. Virgilio stays where he is. His damaged limb wavers in midair like some sort of town drunk, and his undamaged one fiddles with the pottery chunk and the neck of the bottle.
The quivering hand dips and skims its owner’s ratty habit, and Virgilio’s mind recalls that he is alive.
When he steps outside, he finds Monte Cassino in a state that he expects. Ragged triangle walls, blocks from ionic columns, and the husk of the abbey’s flank remain. The rest is incense-scented cinders.
What he does not expect is the trio of German scouts or the intact condition of Benedict’s statue. Benedict surveys the wasteland of his church, staff and open book in hand. One soldier leans up against the statue and swaps food with the other two.
Virgilio finds himself before the Saint almost immediately, although he subconsciously registers the cart-sized chunks of column he vaulted to get there.
He clicks his tongue between his teeth. “Soldier!”
The German nearest the statue fixes a quizzical eye on the disheveled monk. “What?” he says in unaccented Italian.
“Begone. You are desecrating a holy site.”
“I am sorry, Brother, but –” The German stops. His eyes dart down to Virgilio’s side and up again and he grins. “But I think you’d best just toddle off to your cellar.”
Virgilio follows the German’s line of sight to his bottle. The label reads “GIUSEPPE: GETTING YOU THROUGH A DAY’S WORK.”
He croaks, “This isn’t-”
“Please, don’t make your Order look worse, Brother.”
“By letting you-”
“Habit but not the charm, hmm? They must be giving habits away now. Tell me, Brother: where can I get mine?”
Virgilio stands still, mouth chomping at an invisible bit. He snaps, “I’m still looking for my last one,” and stomps off.
The guffawing of all three Nazis erupts two seconds later, as the one translates for the others, and follows him.
He wanders to the very edge of the hilltop and stops. His face doesn’t redden as he’d expect it to. He brings up a fist and imagines crushing the soldier with it.
Nestled in that fist is the bottle’s neck and the pottery shard. The shard, now that the sun is shining, is older than the iconography of the crypt. Bloody browns and coal blacks conjure up images of Grecian urns and something older….
Brother Moretti lets the shard fall from his hand, along with any hate for soldiers – even the ones who’d broken his abbey.
The wind brushes his shoulders and takes the weight of history with it, leaving him with a malnourished and dehydrated body. A small thread of pain from his crusty wound pulses through his arm. His anxiety no longer sustains him.
He shivers and trudges over to the soldiers. As he approaches, the Germans stop and look at him. The one who scoffed at Virgilio holds a quarter-loaf of bread halfway to his mouth.
“Please,” rasps Virgilio, sticking out his left palm. “May I have some food?”
The soldier stares. The bread is frozen between his hand and his lips.
“Let me eat and you can rest your guns on my home with my blessing. Please.”
The German nods and gives up the bread.
A strange hope goes with the bread. Yet even with it, Virgilio’s pace and mind stagger through the fire-baked sherds and mosaic fragments. His feet alone will not carry him to any refuge.
Luckily, the main road escaped the bombing unscathed. Virgilio finds the car where he left it.
He halts, holds up the bread and wine, and bows his head. “Great God, the giver of all good-” He stops and glances at the wine label, realizing that the bread and the wine come more from Giuseppe than God.
He nearly swallows the bread whole, downs a gulp of wine, and clambers into the car. After two turns, the engine kicks up and the steel frame shudders forward.
Cassino coalesces as the car rounds the Monte’s spur. Less remains of the town than the abbey. The foundations of the buildings have been ground into granules. Small mounds of bricks mark the graves of former buildings.
On the other side of the road, far away from the town and more to the foot of the Monte, lies Virgilio’s field, with its scraggly borders and crooked lines.
Virgilio gets out, goes to the edge of the field, and kneels down in the dirt. His throat catches. He doubles over. Tears drip down his cheeks and he catches them in his parched mouth and drinks them. The neck of the wine bottle burns in his hands.
“I left You and sat in a cave,” he murmurs. “I didn’t trust. I gave your house to soldiers with a benediction. A benediction. I was weak. I’m weak.”
He stands up. Another strain of wind stirs up and bats at him. His habit curls around him and shields him from the punishing cold.
Virgilio smiles at the habit’s embrace. His doubt dissolves.
He returns to the car and starts it, resolving to stay behind the wheel until he reaches Rome or until the gas runs out. He’s not yet used to the car, but now, at least, he can see it like he sees his habits: carrying him forward, and trusted not because he is strong, but because he is not.
Sean Weeks is a third-year student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who is majoring in Greek and Roman Studies and Creative Writing. His pleasures are Catullus, ancient career-sapping languages, literature, and classical everything.