The Name of the Artichoke (II)
Episodium II about how the very pious and tired Franciscan brother Pio de Pollalonga and the also very pious an not less tired but still much smarter William de Whiskey arrive to the end of the World and learn of the Holy Boner of Saint Pancreas and how during the tour of a Spanish abbey they find a very pious but unfortunate Dominican sticking out of cheeses and how consternation and horror befall among the Dominicans and how there is much scholarly discussion and loathing between the cruel abbot and sagacious William but less consternation and horror when William baptizes everybody with cheese and explains everything and there is much rejoicing and relief.
We saw for the first time the abbey destined to be the stage of our incredible adventure in the harsh winter of the year of the Lord of 1399 of the Christian Era. The abbey of Lalechera is perched on top of a cliff commanding the Atlantic Ocean that is as it is well known where the World ends. In fact in clear days you could actually see the end of the World and it didn’t look very good. It was basically a large empty space and it looked untidy and, frankly, beyond the reach of any good Christian soul. One could only imagine evil and godless things happening down there.
The Dominican abbey of Lalechera was and still is a towering black building of stone that offered the usual recreational facilities that any discerning monk expects to find on a half decent monastery. There was a refectory, a church, a library, a cloister and a swimming pool, although it was empty when we arrived because most monks couldn’t swim and those who could had taken the custom of throwing the abbot into the water and eventually he had the pool emptied.
Around the abbey lived some faithful but unpaid serfs who worked the lands that sustained the abbacy. Being all of them illiterate and unaware or how much a tithe is, they contributed three thirds of their annual produce to the abbey which left them little to eat and even less energy for the study of mathematics. Around the abbey there were green pastures of fresh grass dotted by the grazing goats that produced the milk with which Tetilla Gallega was made and with also grazing peasants that had been reduced to eat grass to survive.
We climbed the steep rocky path to the monastery and we were welcomed by the abbey’s cellarer because the abbot was having his yearly bath at that precise moment. The abbot’s subordinate was a fat hairy man that looked like a hog wearing a Dominican robe. He introduced himself as brother Marrano de Cazorla and for his appearance and weight it was clear he was the man in charge of the cellar’s keys. He showed us around and my master William seemed very excited about the prospect of using the swimming pool and he felt great disappointment when father Marrano told him that the abbot had threatened to have excommunicate anybody using it even being empty. Father Marrano showed us the church instead but the baptismal basin wasn’t roomy enough to even acoomodate both William’s feet at the same time and he had to desist of his idea of taking a bath for the time being.
Like most medieval churches the Church of Saint Pancreas was decorated in a gloomy and tenebrous fashion that made dungeons look gleeful by comparision in spite of the fact that they are done by the same decorators. The ornamentation of the arches consisted in a pattern of interlocked bones and skulls. The frescoes on the walls depicted the torments of Hell in lurid detail and the place had no heating or drainage. It was hardly surprising that monks only went there on Sundays for mass and then only because they had to. They liked better to spent time frolicking in the orchard amongs the pear trees or flogging themselves in their cells, the most popular pastime in the monk community. Their austere quarters also lacked heating or furniture but at least were not decorated with skulls. It was during this first visit that we descended into the crypt for the first time with Father Marrano who wanted to show us the most valuable relic of the abbey. I was reluctant to descend into the dark crypt in the company of the sinister Dominican because Franciscan and Dominicans have a long history of animosity and confrontations since the Council of Ferment when the Dominicans lost a scholastic discussion over the virginity of the Mother of God when their representative made clear that he believed the female vagina to be located under the right armpit, when the Bible clearly describes how God placed it on Eve’s left armpit. My beloved master calmed my fears and apprehensions with a pedagogic blow on my head that propelled me down the staircase ahead of our little party. Inside it smelled of dead bones and it was even gloomier than the church. Father Marrano produced some keys and opened a heavy wooden door that gave access to the abbey’s treasure. Inside there was the elaborated golden shrine built around a small glass urn that contained the mummified penis of Saint Pancreas.
Saint Pancreas had been a Christian martyr in times of the Roman Empire when Christians were considered the cornerstone of a feline’s good nutrition. According to Christian chroniclers Saint Pancreas had been captured in the emperor’s bedroom when he was trying to baptize the emperor’s wife although no Christian account of the events elucidates why Saint Pancreas was naked and on top of the also naked empress. Theologists speculate this was a peculiar form of baptism practiced by early Christian before the standardization of Rites and Practices agreed on the Council of Melanoma. The outraged pagan emperor offered Pancreas the choice between renouncing his faith and go unharmed into exile or having his penis severed if he insisted in baptizing his wife. This was obviously a practical joke of the emperor who was a pagan with macabre sense of humor and had Pancreas penis severed anyway when he was about to board a ship headed for Mesopotamia. His body was skinned and his skin used to upholster the emperor’s chaise longue, this is the reason why Saint Pancreas is the saint patron of tanners. His penis was discarded because it had not enough skin to make a pillowcase. Some fellow Christians salvaged it from the emperor’s garbage and hid it in the Roman catacombs. A few centuries later pilgrims brought it with them to Galicia as lucky charm for their trip and when they all died of pestilence the penis was preserved on the abbey of Lalechera.
Father Marrano told us about the miracle of the Holy Boner of Saint Pancreas: every year on Christmas Eve the penis was taken outdoors and before a crowd of faihful pilgrims the dead penis came back to life and ejaculated three times: one for the Father, one for the Son and a third for the Holy Spirit, although the third discharge was always weak and scarce. Many pilgrims visited the abbey just to kiss the penis of Saint Pancreas because it was said to be miraculous. It cured the sterility of those who wanted children and improved their performance in the act of fornication, although I didn’t understand the details because I was young and innocent and William persisted in covering my tender ears with his hands every time things got interesting or sinful, which always happened at the same time.
We were still there passing around the mummified penis when a young novice of effeminate manners named Celestino who was in charge of rubbing the abbot’s back stumbled down the staircases and landed at our feet. He was visibly startled and father Marrano had to beat him repeatedly with a votive candle to calm him down and obtain an intelligible explanation of the reason of his storming in that holy place.
Brother Celestino told us that he had gone into the kitchen to fetch a spoon to remove the dirt accumulated under the abbot’s arms and found one of the brothers dead with his head buried on a chunk of Tetilla Gallega. He had apparently suffocated while trying to eat his way to the far side of the cheese. The terrified young Dominican had run to the church to shelter from this evil occurrence and fell down the crypt’s stairs. William prompted the monk to show us the corpse but the young monk was visibly scared and requested permission to go back to the abbot before the tub’s water got cold. William borrowed brother Marrano’s candle and comforted brother Celestino with a few well placed blows on top of his head until he calmed down and leaded us out of that smelly hole.
When the four of us got out the church into the courtyard there were monks running towards the kitchen and William muttered something on my ear.
‘Either the body has been already found or somebody is giving away wine. Either case the kitchen is the place to be right now.’ He said as he darted in hot pursuit of the cloaked crowd.
We crossed the courtyard and joined the crowd of onlookers assembled inside the roomy kitchen. Some of the monks were on their knees crossing themselves and praying while others took advantage of the mayhem to stuff their mouths with any foodstuff at hand. In the center of the kitchen there was a thick wooden table with a massive round cheese on the middle of the tabletop. Sticking out of one side there was a body wearing the robe of a Dominican. Dominicans always had the reputation of being prodigious eaters but that was too much cheese even for infamous Cardinal Fatsolini who suffocated during his ordaining ceremony trying to swallow a tuna fish. William was the first of us to reach the body and examined the scene meticulously looking for clues. He was the first to notice the outstretched right hand of the victim on the tabletop. His dead index finger when still alive had traced a message using some butter from a nearby bowl on the surface. It said:
Obviously the dead Dominican had tried to leave a last message before dying but he had spent too much time with the elaborated Gothic lettering and died before completing his task. Dominicans are famous not only for their prodigious appetite but also for their celebrated patience and craftsmanship as scribes: there was several richly ornamented B’s scattered on the dirty tabletop that apparently were not up to monastic standards of penmanship and have been discarded. Unfortunately the craftsmanship of this monk was of no help in this particular case for it was impossible for us to know if he was trying to leave a message or just exercising his calligraphy one last time before go to meet merciful God in Heaven. Unless the incomplete message was an unfinished suicide note in which case the unfortunate monk should not enter the Heavenly Kingdom and his body would be denied a Christian burial on consecrate ground because the other dead were firmly opposed to the presence of suicides near their graves.
Finally abbot Malallet appeared. He was furious and his habit soaked after having to dress in a rush before having finished his bath. His beard was wet and soap foam clouded his sight. He thought the dead monk had fallen sleep with the cheese in his arms after performing unnatural acts with it. Such cases are not unheard of and many members of religious orders who could not bear their celibacy vow had been caught relieving their urges with all sorts of foodstuffs which explains the caution and silence that customary in the refectories: the monks are too busy inspecting their meals searching for traces of sin on their plates. Pope Vilicious X found once the tongue of a bishop inside his stuffed turkey and had the bishop excommunicated and burnt in spite of the fact the prelate could not confess his crime due to his lack of tongue.
‘ What in the name of God and all Saints has happened here?’ Asked the abbot when he realized his mistake. The abbot was an old and burly man in his sixties with austere look and a thick bushy beard that gave him the appearance of a dancing bear although we found out later his behaviour resembled beeter that of a dog with rabies.
‘ It seems one of your monks was looking for God inside this cheese and he found Him.‘ Said my master addressing the abbot. Then added. ‘Do you know who is him? Unless any cheese-headed monk of the congregation is missing this man suffocated inside this formidable chunk cheese. Incidentally Marco Polo mentions in his travel guide the existence in faraway Catay of the cheese-people who live in the Milky Islands and are half man half cheese and pagans all of them of course.’
‘ Brother William’s I presume’ Said the abbot with a sneer of contempt in his mouth that was almost invisible behind his beard. ‘We do not need your lessons of cartography or geography or even cheesology here. I am aware who you are and why you have been sent here. We Dominicans do not need any filthy Franciscan coming here to tell me how to run my abbey. You are out of your jurisdiction brother William.‘ Said the abbot in a defiant tone.
‘ As you should know brother Malallet we are here on behalf of the Pope to conduct investigations on the mysterious disappearance of His Holiness favorite side dish but it seems that now we are facing some other cardinal sins here besides what at first seemed a simple case of gluttony. It seems we have a murderer at loose in this abbey. ‘ Said my master in a icy calm tone but I could see his fist clenching his cross and ready to strike a blow on the abbot’s head at the first indication of violence.
‘ Murder you say? Your reputation of intellectual pride precedes you as does your body odor and both stink to high Heaven my dear brother Franciscan. Isn’t it clear this man was a filthy glutton and merciful God in his infinite wisdom punished him with suffocation in cheese. I would have done the same if I was God.’ Said the abbot and turned to the scared monks pointing his stocky finger to his temple initiating a spinning motion while he made comical faces.
‘ We all feel relieved that the post of Creator went to somebody less inept, otherwise we all would grow feet in our heads and urinate through our nose. Do not the senses wasteful God has bestowed upon his grace notice something unusual in this crime scene? Besides the fact that this man is remarkably thin, almost skeletal, and it would be madness for such a weakling try to consume a piece of cheese that is at least three times heavier than himself. ‘
‘ That does not prove anything. Thomas Aquinas was thin and with the help of his faith he was once able to swallow a whole pumpkin. Besides some gluttons are thin. The Devil takes many forms brother William, sometimes it takes the form of pedantic Franciscans too.’ Joked again the abbot followed suit by the other monks who were visibly scared of him since he assigned the monastic chores and nobody liked latrine duty.
‘ Certainly faith can work miracles and you my dear brother are a good example: that such a shortsighted man has achieved the rank of abbot and now commands all these pious men is tantamount of miracle. Although if I am the only person in this room who has noticed the rather striking fact that this cheese is intact and that there is not a single crumb of cheese on the tabletop maybe these pious men deserve being commanded by a baboon.’
‘ A what?’ Said abbot Malallet.
‘ Oh My God! The Franciscan is right! ‘ Yelled brother Marrano who was by my side and startled me. Then he turned around and repeated in case somebody hadn’t heard his piercing scream which was doubtful because everybody, including William and the abbot, were looking at him. ‘ The Franciscan is right! This is witchcraft! It is the Devil’s work! The Judgment Day is here. Repent! Repent and run for cover!’ He did as he said and ran towards the door in panic and the monks began to cross themselves at even faster speed in superstitious fear. When the disturbance was over the abbot spoke again without losing his composure.
‘ I must apologize for our dimwit brother, he always thinks anything out of the ordinary is a sign of the End of Days. Yesterday he couldn’t find his underwear and he thought it was a sign of the Second Coming. We had to remind him that Dominicans do not use underwear. He is a simple soul but the excessive fat inside his head clouds his judgment sometimes. Yours is indeed an interesting observation brother William, but is widely known that obnoxious vapors and fetid exhalations can deteriorate the dairy products. What appears to be a monk sticking from a cheese could be just a giant fungus that moved by piety and inspired by our virtuous lifestyle has tried to take the habits of a Dominican.’
‘ That is certainly a very interesting theory coming from a man whose nose looks like a fungus. I guess there is only one way to know if it is correct.’ Said William and before anybody could stop him his fist discharged a violent blow on top of the cheese. Speeding fragments of cheese flown in all directions and we all ended up sticky under a thick layer of smelly cheese. William figure was almost totally covered with it as was the abbot’s who has been the man closer to the blast. His ugly face was buried under a mass of sticky white cheese. All that was left on the tabletop was the contorted face of a young monk with his whitened tongue sticking out his mouth that was frozen in a spasm of panic.
‘ What in the name of God…? Brother Panfilo! ‘ Said the abbot, who after removing the sticky white stuff from his eyes had recognized the dead monk.
My master never lost his dignified composure and calmly cleaned his face with the hem of his habit. He spat some cheese out his mouth and spoke as if nothing had happened.
‘ Sorry dear brothers, I though Tetilla Gallega was a tougher kind of cheese and I might have miscalculated my strength thinking this cheese was the head of some recalcitrant Dominican abbot. The fact remains that it is impossible for a man to eat cheese from the inside out as Aristotles demonstrates in his study about cheesy logics. It is obvious the head of this poor man was introduced inside the cheese mold when the milk was still liquid and somebody hold him in there until it solidified. Then the murderer left him on the table to die. He suffocated either because the lack of air or due to the cheese’s strong smell. Before dying he tried to write the name of the murderer on the table but his excessive devotion for proper lettering prevented him from finishing the message. I am positive he worked at the abbey’s library. Am I right? ‘ The monks were perplexed by the deductive powers of William, brother Panfilo was indeed one of the scribes at the library. He was also a competent draftsman and used his drawing skills to illuminate religious books with depictions of the torments of Hell that had become fashionable during the last millenia.
The abbot was furious but the reasoning of my preceptor was flawless and had to concede him a dialectical victory. It was obvious he was fuming because the cheese in his head was melting down his cheeks and he looked like a giant fondue. He gave orders to some Dominicans to prepare the body to be buried and motioned us to follow him to the library where he had his office because it was located in the opposite end of the pigsty.