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Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Crypt: a short story

Luxurious growth - pepino gold
Mid-winter in the Adelaide Hills, and it’s wet and cold as it should be. Yet we have our share of sunshine days, which makes for pleasant gardening and even a picnic or two.

Unusual fruit - pepino gold
There are more plants flowering now than there were in May, which always surprises me. I have been planting unusual fruits this year, and today’s pics shows how a small pepino gold that lost its leaves in its first winter is now taking over my garden – and still flowering and ripening fruit through the cold! I discovered that I don’t really like the flavour of the ripened melon-like fruit, but fortunately my offspring do. It can also be eaten unripe, cooked like various other relatively tasteless vegetables (choko comes to mind) which fill out a casserole or stir fry. I don’t mind that. And, at the very least, the plant adds lushness to my garden, which is always welcome.

The story this month, a drama with a hint of myth, shows an experience involving an ancient sword in the life of an oppressed young woman . The story is too long for one post, so come by again in August for the second half.

The Crypt

Around the bejewelled sword lying in splendour on a raised dais lined with royal blue satin stand eleven solemn devotees. They link hands in the circle and one by one they name a gemstone – emerald, ruby, sapphire, diamond – and intone the meaning of each symbol engraved in the gleaming steel – truth, light, strength, honour, hope, power, love.
   A gaunt man in purple robes speaks longer than the others, reminding them of how the sword came to them through the centuries. He gives them the benefit of his meditations on just one of the many glories of the sword but he does not demonstrate it, though he has some skill. His focus has always been more on its making and its history.
   The attendants leave after a hymn of praise to the maker and the original wielders of this mighty and glorious weapon of a past age.

A young woman dressed in rich monochrome stands in the shadow of the crypt. With her back against a wall still warmed by the summer sun, she tries to slow her wildly beating heart. Beyond her a strobe of moonlight flashing between the branches of a windblown eucalypt alternately lights, then hides, a group of boys. They huddle, the backs of their black t-shirts showing as dark patches in the evening, then spread out, each of the four in a different direction. One begins to move towards the crypt, slowly, his head turning left, right, in front as he searches.
The young woman feels for the handle of the door to her left. It is locked, as it was the three previous times she tried it. She turns to face the wall and feels upwards for the window, which is closed. There is no mechanism; her fingernail on her right middle finger tears as she feels all around the edge, searching for a gap.
She turns back to see where the approaching boy is now. She panics for a moment, then spots him searching under the trees of a neighbouring yard, just over the road.
She has known this crypt since childhood when she and her brothers had played hide and seek among the stone buildings of the historic precinct. They had always called this ‘the crypt’, although it was set only a little lower than the other buildings, its foundations six feet below ground level. A concrete path surrounds the rectangular building, and concrete retaining walls. Wide concrete steps lead down to the main door. She has never entered, but a sign states the times of worship, when the crypt is opened.
Creeping around the corner from the locked side entrance, the young woman tries to picture the crypt walls as she saw them in her childhood games. A memory tugs at the corner of her mind as her fingers trail lightly along the wall. This side is cool, never receiving the sun’s attention. While it leads away from the one who searches for her, she recognises it is a dead end trap. There is no knowing where the other boys are. Even now they could be approaching from behind the hall in front of her. She listens for footfalls and giveaway crunching of stone or leaf litter underfoot, but the wind blows all sound aside except its own.
Her fingers identify a change of texture, and into her memory springs the image of a metal grate as large as a small dog. She turns to face this dank wall, putting both her hands to the grate and pulling. It moves with a scrape of metal against stone. She pulls carefully, feeling the pressure of the unknown at her back but fearing the sound giving away her location. Pushing, easing, holding her breath, stopping when the wind stops. Finally the grate comes out. She has no idea what lies beyond it.
She places the metal carefully on the concrete path to her right. The space where it was is pitch black. She feels as far in as she can reach, brushing away accumulated litter. It crackles a little, and she stops to listen again. Is that an answering crackle behind her, just to her left? Her heart beat increases and the pounding makes it harder to hear. It takes all her effort to hold the fear back, to think before she moves.
The wind’s white noise begins again. The young woman makes her decision and thrusts her arms and head into the space, and pulls herself into the tight, cold stone tunnel. The air is musty, dead, and dusty enough to tempt a sneeze which she manages to supress. She drags her body through, combat style though the movements are awkward, arrhythmic in the cramped space. In every moment she fears hitting her head, her hands touching something other than stone, or her feet being pulled.
Then her hands feel nothing but space. She forces herself to continue until her waist is at the lip of the stone, her upper body held in air. She cannot sense what is ahead of her. She might fall head first, a long way. But there is no other way. She wishes she had started feet first.
She falls. A jumble of nerve ending signals and sounds sort themselves, moments later, into a tangle of wooden chairs, an echoing crash, and a stabbing pain in her right thigh.
Her eyes adjust to the dark; moonlight entering a high window gives enough light to see the essentials. She manages to stand, making the chairs tumble further. She hobbles towards a central section, a platform of some kind. For a while she forgets the threat outside in the otherworldly wonder of being inside this place for the first time.
Her feet bump into a step, and she half falls up a set of them. At the top of the platform is a rail, a wide walkway, and a large box in the middle. She shuffles forward.
The hint of moonlight reflects off something on the top of the box. She lets her fingers provide the details her eyes cannot make out. There is silky fabric in generous folds around the edge, and then something hard and cold and long in the middle. Lightly tracing its shape from the top, she understands that it is a sword. Its pommel is scratchy, lumpy, and the cross guard similarly textured. Her hand slips into the grip and, without meaning to, she begins to lift the sword from its bed. It is too heavy. She lets it go again.
Why, she wonders, is there a sword in here, the centrepiece of this room? A crypt is normally a burial place but instead a sword lies in the place of honour. It is a mystery.
Scuffling and muffled voices remind her that this is not the time for mystery. She berates herself for losing focus, for not closing off the tunnel that is even now giving her enemies the same access she used. She is trapped. She would like to kneel or sit hidden but she remains standing, likely outlined by the moonlight, because she does not trust her right leg to do anything else. She waits.
They come, three of them, one by one tumbling out of the tunnel with a clatter and a shout. She waits for the fourth. Perhaps he is too big for the tunnel, or stands guard outside.
They fan out, still systematic in their method, edging around the room, approaching the platform from three directions, muttering instructions in short phrases. They have done this before, she thinks. Fear rises in her chest again. She feels the futility of resistance, and sweats the temptation to reveal herself and surrender to their vile intentions. It would be a relief, really, after all this time. If it isn’t these boys, it’s her stepfather, his son, her French teacher – a string of parasitic males and their sycophant female partners. She has been playing hide and seek for real for so long. How bitterly ironic that she should finally be caught here, inside the favourite refuge of her unsuspecting childhood.
She has been seen. She braces herself, adrenaline overcoming any thought of surrender. She steps up to the box and grasps the sword. Again she wonders at the way it fits her hand. She knows the sword is too heavy but she sets herself to raise it anyway. She is here, it is here, and her enemy is upon her.
The sword rises, glinting in the faint light as if it flashes a message. The fear drains from her and in its place a battle cry fills her lungs and forces its way through her lips: ‘The sword of light! You cannot defeat it.’
Exaltation sustains her as the first boy comes at her, jeering, ‘Ha! That thing’s twice your size. You’ll kill yourself before you can hurt us.’
He lunges at her and she waves the sword wildly at him, both hands on the hilt. The weight of the blade smacks him on the shoulder and knocks him off balance. He groans and rolls away from her.
The second boy runs up the platform steps. ‘You little bitch! You don’t deserve to live – you’re nothin’ but a gash and I’m gonna prove it.’ He pulls from his boot something small that glints as he dances around, twisting it, thrusting it, moving closer to the young woman. She swings the sword, loses her footing; he darts in and slices at her side while she is hefting the sword back in his direction. She feels the sting of contact with his blade even as the sword slices towards him. He ducks. The sword clatters against the railing and bounces. It is all she can do to hold it. She has no control of its direction.
The knife-wielder is joined by the third boy now, both of them keeping out of the sword’s range, side by side on the platform with the box between her and them.
Her arms are getting tired and the weight of the unwieldy weapon drags at her shoulders. The initial exaltation is dulling. Her strength will not last as long as her determination. But still she holds the sword with both hands, letting it rest for a moment against the box while she strains to see the movements of her assailants.
The first boy is on his feet again, clutching his struck shoulder with the other hand and swaying like a drunk. ‘I say we just run at her—‘
‘Shut up.’ The third boy’s words hold authority. He turns his attention to the young woman. ‘You’re getting tired, aren’t you? You’ve put up a good fight. Pretty impressive for a slight build like yours. I’ll say this for you – you’re feisty.’
She feels a new measure of wariness. He is cunning, this boy with his honey words, using the soft touch while his mates are harsh. In spite of herself she answers. ‘You’re no better than the rest, even if you play Mr Nice Guy. You don’t fool me.’
‘Quit blabbin’,’ the second boy, the knife-wielder, growls. ‘Let’s just cut her and get outta here.’
Their leader pays no attention. He holds them back, standing nonchalant, relaxed, as if all the searching and chasing were just to engage in conversation with her.
She flexes her fingers and resettles her grip.
‘You realise, of course – you’re no idiot – that we’ve got you cornered. You can’t win against three of us. You’ll just get hurt. It’s heavy, isn’t it, and your muscles aren’t trained to use it. You did well getting in here. It took us a while to find you. But you know, don’t you, that even your smarts can’t beat the three of us.
‘Why don’t you just put the sword down,’ he continues, ‘and let’s sort this out calmly. We won’t kill you – we just mean to have our fun, so if you’re really smart you’ll cooperate with us. I’ll make sure Sharpy here puts his knife away. I’m not into cutting.’
Sharpy growls but he puts the knife back into his boot.
‘See,’ says Honeytongue, ‘they do what I tell them. You will too.’
There is no threat in his tone, just supreme confidence in his authority. He seems so reasonable, so sure of himself, the young woman thinks that it would be easy to believe him. She is tired, her leg and her arms telling her in no uncertain terms that they are not enjoying this unfamiliar action.
‘No,’ she says, grimacing at the pathetic whisper. ‘No.’ She says it more firmly, and clears her throat. But she has no more words to add in the waiting silence. She raises the sword and balances the weight on her feet. The silence stretches until she’s sure something will snap.
‘Too bad,’ Honeytongue remarks, ‘I prefer my catch unbruised. Go to it, boys.’

(To be continued)

See you next time!

Claire Belberg