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The hermit straightened his back and looked up, the axe still in his hand. He had been chopping logs for some time and had begun to feel his age. He thought for a moment he saw a dark shadow move in the forest to the side of him and turned his head quickly. There was no movement now, but he could not shake off the impression that he was being watched —and not by an animal.
He put down the axe as quietly as he could and his hand went to his belt where a flask of water hung —holy water from the Sacred Well —a weapon more effective than any axe against the kind of enemy that threatened him.
It seemed that he stood a long time there —tense, ready.
There was no further movement.
The sun reached its zenith and a shaft of light suddenly blazed through the leaves of the forest canopy and almost blinded him. When it passed on, the feeling of another's presence was gone too.
Collen relaxed and started to gather up the logs of wood in his arms.
Lukas could have sworn the earth had moved beneath his foot.
He stood still, staring in alarm at the apparently firm greensward of the apple orchard.
He had known this orchard for years, ever since he had come to the monastery. Why had it moved? How could it possibly have moved? The earth was immovable, unchangeable, the beautiful anchorage of his life. His father had died. His mother had died. Even the walls of the church were taken down and rebuilt from time to time. But the earth with its covering of deep green grass, rich in cowslip and daisy, was surely there forever.
After staring at the ground for a fewmoments he convinced himself that he had imagined it. Above him in the branches of the trees the birds sang and fluttered. They were not alarmed. Nothing had changed for them.
He took another step.
The earth gave way and, with a shout of astonishment, he fell down a huge hole that had suddenly opened up beneath him.
'Mother of God!' he gasped, smarting and terrified, struggling with the loose earth full of wriggling worms and fibrous roots that had fallen with him. He fought hard to get a grip on the lip of the hole and haul himself out, but the more he tried, the more the lip gave way, and more earth and grass joined the mass already in the hole.
At last he paused for breath and, finding that in fact no one was attacking him and he was not in any great pain, he looked about him to try to decide what had happened. Apart from the mound of earth that had come in with him he saw large stones that appeared to have been roughly squared and fitted upon one another to make the floor, walls and ceiling of a tunnel. The smell that came from the darkness was so musty that Lukas could not but think that it was very old and had been closed for a long, long time.
The fear that had come with the shock of falling had passed, and he now felt only excitement. He had discovered something that no one else in the monastery knew about. At last he had something that was his own, that need not be shared. He had come to the monastery as an orphaned and homeless boy and had drifted into a novitiate as he grew up. Now as a young man he was approaching the taking of his first vows without any great conviction. He would be a monk out of gratitude for what the monks had done for him and because he scarcely knew another life. There were times when he experienced a deep and intense sense of mystic reality, but mostly his life was hard work and routine shared with a hundred or so other men who held everything in common and who implicitly obeyed the rule of the Abbot.
More and more recently Lukas had found the routine of the monastery irksome, particularly the lack of privacy.
He thought back upon the stories he had heard about the Tor, wondering if there had been anything about a tunnel, but he could remember nothing. There had been other tales, tales of demons sighted on the summit, tales of mysterious hounds heard howling in the air at night or in a storm, tales of boats seen approaching the island through the mists and yet never seen landing —all cited by the abbot as being proof that the ancient religion that used to be practised on the Tor was the work of the devil, and dismissed by Brother Peter of the kitchen as superstitious nonsense. But no one had ever said anything about a tunnel.
Lukas' days at the monastery were divided mostly between working in the kitchen under Brother Peter, peeling and chopping food, scouring iron pans, stoking fires; working in the scriptorium copying texts; singing in the choir. There was a rota system for the choir so that there was not a moment of the day or night when the chant of praise to the Lord was broken or interrupted. The perpetual choir had been the idea of a previous abbot and had been intended as a flow of beautiful and harmonious sound that would lift the hearts of the imperfect, earth-bound creatures to unite with the perfect choirs of heaven. The present abbot had kept up the practice not for any such noble motive, but because he loved custom, regularity and routine. In spite of that, the deep, rich sounds of the chant of praise never failed to thrill Lukas and some of his happiest moments were, paradoxically, those when he was least alone, his 'little' self totally transcended in union with the angels as he sang in the choir, or when he was most alone, working in the vegetable garden or the orchard, his thoughts his own.
Now, crouching in the tunnel, he wondered how to keep his discovery secret. He stacked the squared stones that had fallen from the ceiling carefully and, climbing on these precarious steps, stretched and struggled until at last he scrambled back into the fresh air and the familiar green orchard. He checked the position of the sun and knew that it would not be long before he would be expected for his duties in the kitchen.
He looked at the hole. Although it had seemed huge to him as he fell, it was not really so large and, luckily, it was well to the side of the main orchard in a place so overgrown with brambles and weeds that not many people came that way. It was for this very reason he had chosen to be there, often yearning for privacy in the relentlessly communal life of the monastery.
Copyright © 1989, Moyra Caldecott.
Posted May 13, 2013