- ISBN: 9780547807683 | 0547807686
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 6/12/2012
ALTENSTADT NEAR SCHONGAU
ON THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 18, 1660, AD
When the parish priest Andreas KOPPMEYER pressed the last stone into place and sealed the opening with lime and mortar, he had just four hours to live.
With the back of his large hand, he wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned back against the cool, damp wall behind him. Then he looked nervously up the narrow, winding staircase. Was something moving up there? Again, he heard the floorboards creaking as if someone were moving stealthily across the floor above him in the church. But it could have just been his imagination. Wood warps, and the St. Lawrence Church was old and crumbling. It was not for nothing that workmen had been there for the last few weeks repairing the building so that it wouldn’t someday come crashing down during mass.
A January storm was whistling around the weathered walls and shaking the wooden shutters. But it wasn’t just due to the cold down here in the crypt that the priest was trembling. Pulling his worn cassock tightly around him, he scrutinized the bricked-up wall once more and then started the climb back up the stairway to the church. His steps echoed on the worn, frost-covered stairs. Suddenly, the howling of the storm got louder so that he could no longer hear the soft creaking in the balcony above him. He must have been mistaken. Who would still be here in the church at this hour, for heaven’s sake? It was way past midnight. His housekeeper Magda had gone to bed hours ago in the little rectory next door and the old sexton would not return until it was time to ring the bells at six in the morning.
Pastor Andreas Koppmeyer climbed the final steps out of the crypt. His broad figure completely filled the opening in the church floor. He was more than six feet tall, a bear of a man who, with his long, broad beard and bushy black eyebrows, looked like the personification of an Old Testament God. When Koppmeyer stood before the altar in his black robe and delivered his homilies in a deep, gruff voice, his appearance alone caused his flock to tremble and instilled in them the fear of purgatory.
With both hands, the pastor gripped the slab covering the crypt. It weighed several hundred pounds, and he panted as he pushed it back over the opening. It made a crunching sound as he set it down, but it covered the crypt perfectly, as if it had never been opened. Koppmeyer examined his work with satisfaction and then made his way back through the storm.
As he started to open the church door, he noticed that snow was already gathering in high drifts in front of the portal. With a groan, he pressed his shoulder against the heavy oaken door until it opened a crack and he was just able to squeeze through. Snowflakes lashed his face like little thorns and he had to close his eyes as he trudged back to the rectory.
It was only about thirty paces back to the little house, but it seemed like an eternity to the pastor. The wind tugged hard at his cassock and it fluttered around him like a tattered flag. The snow was almost up to his hips and even Koppmeyer, with his massive body, had to struggle to move forward. As he fought his way step by step through the storm and the darkness, he kept thinking of the events of the last two weeks. Pastor Koppmeyer was a simple man of God, but even he had noticed that his discovery was something extraordinary, something a little too sensitive for him to deal with and that would best be left to others. He did the right thing in hiding it behind the wall and letting more powerful, knowledgeable people decide whether it should ever be opened again. Perhaps he should not have written the letter to Benedikta, but he had always trusted his younger sister. She was amazingly bright and well read for a woman and he had often asked her for advice. Surely she would know what to do this time as well.
Andreas Koppmeyer was suddenly wakened from his reveries. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something moving to the right, behind the woodpile near the house. He squinted and held his hand over his eyes to protect them from the snowflakes, but he couldn’t make out anything. It was too dark and the falling snow made it even harder. Shrugging, he turned aside. Probably just a fox trying to sneak up on the chicken coop, he thought. Or a bird looking for a place to hide from the storm.
Finally, Koppmeyer reached the door to the rectory. Here, on the south side, the drifts weren’t as high. He opened the door, squeezed his massive frame into the hallway, and bolted the door. At once he was enveloped in silence. The storm seemed far, far away. On the open hearth in the main room, a small fire was still burning, spreading warmth and comfort, and behind it a stairway led up to the housekeeper’s room. The priest turned to the right and walked through the main room on his way to his private quarters.
On opening the door he was met by a sweet, rich fragrance. His mouth watered when he saw where it was coming from. On the table in the middle of his room was a clay bowl filled to the top with delicious doughnuts. Koppmeyer moved closer and touched them gently. They were still warm.
The priest grinned. His dear housekeeper Magda had once again thought of everything. He had told her he would be in the church longer today to lend a hand with the renovations. He had taken a loaf of bread and a jug of wine along with him just in case, but the housekeeper knew that a man like Koppmeyer needed more to live on than that, so she had made the pastries for him and they were here now waiting for someone to come and redeem them!
Andreas Koppmeyer lit a candle from the fire on the hearth and sat down at the table. He was delighted to see that the doughnuts were heavily coated with honey. He pulled the bowl over to him with both his huge hands, took one that was still warm, and bit into it, smacking his lips with pleasure.
They were delicious.
Chewing silently, the priest felt the warmth flowing back into his body. Soon he was done and reached for the next doughnut. He picked apart the softest one and pushed the steaming pieces into his mouth faster and faster. For a moment he thought he noticed an unpleasant taste, but it was at once covered by the sweet taste of the honey.
After the sixth one, Koppmeyer finally had to give up. He peered down into the bowl one last time and saw just two doughnuts at the bottom. Sighing deeply, he rubbed his stomach, then more than satisfied, headed for the adjacent room, where he at once fell into a deep sleep.
The pains, accompanied by a slightly nauseous feeling, announced themselves just before the first cock crow. Silently, Koppmeyer cursed his indulgence and sent a brief prayer to heaven, knowing that gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins. Most likely, Magda had intended the contents of the bowl to last a few days, but the doughnuts had simply been too delicious! Now God was punishing him right away with nausea and bodily aches and pains. Why did he have to start stuffing himself in the middle of the night? It served him right!
As he was getting out of bed to relieve himself in the chamber pot that was placed at the ready for such occasions, the stomach pains intensified. Flashes of such pain coursed through his body that Father Koppmeyer had to grab the edge of the bed, moaning. He sat up and hobbled into the main room, where a pitcher of water stood on a little table. He sat down and drank the cool liquid in one long gulp in the hope of relieving the pain.
On the way back to his room, a stabbing pain worse than anything he had ever experienced shot from his throat down to his stomach. Koppmeyer tried to shout, but the cry stuck in his throat. His tongue was like a stopper made of flesh plugging his airway. He sank to his knees while tongues of fire crept up his throat. He vomited mushy clumps, but the pain did not subside. On the contrary, it worsened until all Koppmeyer could do was to crawl around on all fours like a whipped dog. His legs suddenly gave out altogether. He tried to shout for the housekeeper, but the fire had long since consumed his throat.
Slowly, the priest began to realize that these were no normal stomach pains and it wasn’t just that Magda had simply let the milk go bad. He could tell he was going to die. He lay there in abject misery.
After some minutes of fear and despair, the priest reached a decision. With his last bit of strength, he leaned against the front door and pushed it open. Once again, the storm lashed his face, a wall of cold and icy thorns. The howling of the wind seemed to be mocking him.
Following the tracks he had made some hours before that were still partially visible, he crept back to the church on all fours. Again and again, he had to stop and lie down when the pain got the better of him. Snow and ice crept under his cassock, his hands froze into shapeless clumps, and he lost all sense of time. One thing was uppermost in this mind: He had to reach the church!
Finally, his head bumped against a wall, and after a few seconds he realized he had reached the portal of the St. Lawrence Church. With his last bit of strength, he forced the frozen stumps that had once been his hands into the crack in the door and pulled it open. Once inside, he was no longer even able to crawl on all fours. His legs kept collapsing under the weight of his heavy body, and it was only by crawling on his belly that he could manage the final short distance. He could feel how his inner organs were failing, little by little.
When the priest reached the slab over the crypt, he passed his hands briefly over the relief of the woman below him. He caressed the weathered figure like a lover and finally laid his cheek on her face. Paralysis was climbing up his body from his legs, but before it reached his hands, the priest scratched a circle with the jagged nail of his right index finger into the layer of frost atop the gravestone. Then the tension receded from the powerful body and he collapsed. Once more, he tried to raise his head, but something was gripping him tightly.
The last thing Andreas Koppmeyer felt was how his beard, his right ear, and the skin on his face slowly froze to the gravestone. Cold and silence enveloped him.