EPISODE TWO: THE SOUND OF SCREAMING
It was sometime around the second helping of Apple Strudel that I finally stopped to ponder the contradictory nature of the welcome at the Abbey. At the Reverend Mother’s insistence I had already managed to wolf down two large bowls full of a delicious broth (my lanky companion had quite heroically downed three). If hospitality were to be measured solely on the quality and quantity of the food then the Abbey had to rank as one of the best places in the world to stumble upon when lost. Yet, however tasty and plentiful the dishes on offer, there was something about the general atmosphere and the manner of the Reverend Mother in particular that made me just a touch uneasy.
She’d led us across the courtyard to a spacious dining hall dominated by a vast wooden crucifix hanging from the wall at one end. We were seated at the end of one of the polished dining tables that ran the length of the room and the Reverend Mother served us herself, periodically vanishing through a heavy wooden door at the side to bring forth more food. To be honest, judging from the pallid cast of our hostess’s face I hadn’t been expecting a whole lot from the catering. But after just a few mouthfuls I was prepared to put her pasty complexion down to the fact that nuns probably didn’t get out much. The food was utterly delicious.
The Reverend Mother didn’t eat herself but sat alongside us, watching eagerly before hurrying off at the first sign of an empty plate to bring back fresh supplies. It was as she was gathering up the empty strudel plates that it finally occurred to me to ask the obvious question. “Where are all the other nuns?”
It was true we hadn’t seen much of the place but so far the Abbey seemed about as populous as the rest of Salzburg.
“The sisters are confined to their cells for the moment,” replied the Reverend Mother smoothly. “They are communing with God.”
“But we couldn’t help noticing that as we passed through the town it was a bit… dead,” added Michael, searching for the appropriate adjective.
The Reverend Mother busied herself with the plates. “Well, Salzburg has always been a rather quiet town.”
“But this was more than quiet,” I insisted. “This was, well… deserted.”
“Had enough strudel?” the Reverend Mother asked abruptly, scooping up dishes and cutlery. “Never mind, I’m sure you have just a bit of room left for one or two of our delicious pastries. The Abbey is renowned all over town for the quality of our pastries.”
Before Michael or I could protest she had swept out of the hall, the door clanging shut behind her. Michael sighed and leaned back with the air of a man contemplating how much he could safely digest before he was in danger of bursting. But my curiosity had now been aroused. “You’ve got to admit, there’s something very wrong about this place,” I began in a low voice. “It’s like a morgue.”
Michael shrugged. “You said yourself – it’s an Abbey, it’s not meant to be lively.”
“No but it’s more than that. It’s like somebody sucked the very life out of the place.” I paused and glanced round at the sparsely decorated hall. “I say we skip the pastries and make our move.”
Michael considered for a moment. “I’m not sure I could eat another bite anyway,” he ruefully conceded.
I rose from the bench and walked over to the door by which we had entered. Attempting to turn the handle though soon brought up an immediate obstacle. “It’s locked!” I exclaimed. “When did she lock the door? I don’t remember seeing her lock the door.”
“You’re probably just turning it wrong. Here, let me try.” Michael elbowed me aside and grappled for a moment with the door himself but the result was the same. “Why would she want to lock us in?”
As I was stumped for an answer it appeared entirely fortuitous that at just that moment the inner door on the other side of the room opened and the Reverend Mother stepped into the hall carrying an over-flowing dish of pastries. She froze for a moment when she realised our seats were empty. Her darting eyes soon located us by the doorway though. “What are you doing over there?” she asked sharply.
“You locked the door,” I complained. “Why have you locked the door?”
The Reverend Mother took a deep breath and deposited her dish of pastries on the table where we had been sitting. “I wanted to make sure you were safe,” she replied smoothly. “Now come, eat up. Delicious pastries.”
The pastries did indeed look delicious but there was something in the use of the word safe that made me feel I had never been in so much danger. “Look, I’m really sorry,” I said firmly. “But we have to be going now.”
“Yes, thank-you for your hospitality but if you could just let us know how we could get to the Gabelsbergerstrasse then we’ll be on our way.” Michael’s voice was calm but I could sense he was as tense as I was.
“But you haven’t tasted the pastries yet,” protested the Reverend Mother somewhat feebly.
“I’m sorry but we really couldn’t eat another thing,” explained Michael.
“Then perhaps you might like to take some time for a little quiet devotion in our private chapel,” the Reverend Mother continued blithely.
“I don’t think we have time,” I said quickly.
“Oh but one should always find time to make one’s peace with the Lord,” she responded. “One never quite knows when the final reckoning may be at hand.”
“Look, we’ll make our own way to the Gabel-what-have-you,” I retorted, more than a little alarmed with the way the discussion was going. “If you could just open the door, thank-you.”
The Reverend Mother’s eyes narrowed and for one dreadful moment I thought she was torn between attacking us and flouncing out in a huff. But after an awkward couple of seconds she appeared to recover her composure. “But there is a passage that runs through the Abbey that will lead you directly onto the street that you want,” she said calmly. “Please allow me to direct you there.”
Michael and I exchanged a cautious glance. It was clear there was something not quite right about this whole set up but if we turned down the Reverend Mother’s offer what was the alternative? To go back to aimlessly wandering the streets of Salzburg in the hope of blindly stumbling upon the right path? And, to be fair, she had fed us extremely well. I confess I was loathe to think badly of anyone who could make apple strudel that fine.
So, somewhat reluctantly, we nodded our acquiescence. The Reverend Mother came forward and, pulling a bundle of keys out from somewhere beneath her habit, she selected one and unlocked the door.
I felt a distinct sense of relief as I breathed the fresh air of the courtyard once more. The Reverend Mother led us quickly across the cobbles and up a narrow alley that ran between two buildings. We emerged to find ourselves confronted with a wall of rock where the mountain reared up before us. It wasn’t until the Reverend Mother pulled out her keys again and slotted one into the lock that I actually noticed the door that had been cut into the rock face.
We entered a small empty chamber that had apparently been cut from the mountain itself. In one corner a fire burned in a low brazier. The Reverend Mother pulled a torch down from the wall above and lit the end from the brazier. It provided just enough flickering light to illuminate the outline of a passage that appeared to lead directly into the centre of the mountain. “I’m sorry, are you sure this is the way to the Gabelsbergerstrasse?” asked Michael uncertainly.
“This is the quickest way to your destination,” replied the Reverend Mother. “Stay close.” And with that, she plunged straight into the passage.
There didn’t seem to be anything to do but to follow her. The flames of the torch danced away above the Reverend Mother’s head, pointing out the direction but as the light did not extend far it was difficult to get much of a feel for the surroundings. The passage was narrow and low, apparently hemmed in by slippery rock on all sides. The walls were damp to the touch and as we travelled onwards the air grew progressively fustier till I began to feel as though I had been imprisoned in the salad crisper of my fridge alongside a selection of my housemates’ gently rotting vegetables.
The pace slackened and a scraping sound indicated that the Reverend Mother had paused to open a door which blocked our progress. “This way,” she murmured, ushering us through. The door was lined with some sort of heavy metal and swung shut behind me with an ominous clang. Immediately the torch was bobbing it’s way ahead once again.
As soon as the door had closed behind us we began to distinguish a sound coming from somewhere up ahead. It was a low, distraught, moaning noise that seemed to seep through the rock itself as though someone had imprisoned a family of walrus within the mountain and was forcing them to sing Leonard Cohen songs.
“What’s that noise?” I immediately called out to the Reverend Mother.
“It is nothing,” she quickly replied without breaking stride. “Keep close.”
The moaning continued, growing imperceptibly louder with each stride. “I’m sorry but that doesn’t sound like nothing to me,” complained Michael. “Is there someone down here?”
“It is merely an echo,” the Reverend Mother insisted. “We are deep in the heart of the Monchsberg. The mountain plays tricks on you.”
The ground had been sloping gently downwards for the last hundred yards or so and getting progressively wetter and more slimy. In the stifling confines of the passage the torch was struggling to stay alight and soon it became a battle just to keep our footing. I felt Michael stumble in front of me and a moment later my right foot slipped away from beneath me and I fell down onto my knee with a painful thud. “Jesus Christ!” I automatically exclaimed. In the gloom I couldn’t quite see her face but I could feel a wave of disapproval emanating from the Reverend Mother. “Sorry,” I muttered as I struggled back to my feet. “But this is a bit hard going.”
“Stay close. We’re nearly there.”
“Nearly where?” asked Michael. “You can’t tell me we’re anywhere near the Gabelsbergerstrasse down here.”
The Reverend Mother continued on without reply. A few paces further and the damp walls suddenly receded from our sides and we rather abruptly found ourselves in the middle of a wide cavern. The moaning now seemed to be ominously close. Michael and I each hesitated.
“Just over here now,” murmured the Reverend Mother impatiently, just a few strides away.
“Where?” I muttered, unnerved by the sounds and the darkness. “I can’t see a bloody thing down here.”
“Ah, you’d like to see, would you?” declared the Reverend Mother, her voice suddenly raised and echoing around the cavern. “Then see you shall.”
The torch bobbed away for a moment and then suddenly the cavern was flooded with light. Before I could possibly readjust my eyes to the brightness, my ears were assaulted by a wall of sound as the low moaning immediately broke out into a crescendo of wails and howls that bounced off every surface and echoed back at us. It took a few moments for my blinking eyes to focus sufficiently to discover the source of this horrendous clamour. The light shone down from powerful electric beams in the ceiling, illuminating a circular grotto into the sides of which were dug small recesses. Each of these cells held a single occupant, contained by a door of thick iron bars.
The Reverend Mother calmly mounted her now extraneous torch into a holder on the wall and turned to us with a macabre smile. “Allow me to introduce the sisters of the Abbey.”
“But they’re…” stuttered Michael.
“They’re zombies!” I exclaimed. I’d been dragged to enough late night horror screenings by my classmate Ben to recognise the species though I had never before seen the breed sporting torn nun’s habits and shredded wimples. But there was no mistaking the ghastly pallor, the glazed expression or the slavering jaws as they rattled at their cage doors. Michael and I instinctively moved closer to one another and began backing away, circling anxiously as the inmates clawed at the bars and grasped at us from all directions.
“How could this happen?” asked Michael, utterly stunned.
The Reverend Mother casually paced around the interior of the cavern. “One of the novices came back from picking flowers on the hillside suffering from what we thought was a fever,” she explained calmly. “We tried to take care of her… but the infection spread so quickly. And now the sisters suffer from such unnatural appetites.”
Suddenly the mystery of the empty town was revealed.
“You don’t mean…?” stuttered Michael, who I imagine had rather less experience of the genre than I did.
“My poor sisters have been so very hungry,” murmured the Reverend Mother mournfully.
“Oh my God,” was all Michael could say.
“But food has become scarce,” the Reverend Mother continued. “They crave fresh meat, it torments them night and day. And now the streets are empty. I have to keep them down here like this to prevent them turning on one another. I’ve been at my wits end, praying for a way to satisfy their appetites. I should have known that the Good Lord always provides.”
It took a moment for the significance of that last remark to sink in. “Oh hell, I think she means us,” exclaimed Michael.
“You don’t say.”
The Reverend Mother looked us up and down with a haunting smile. “Not a great deal of meat to go around but you will do for now,” she announced to her own obvious satisfaction.
“Wait! Just take a moment to consider what you’re doing here,” pleaded Michael. “You’re a woman of God, after all.”
“I did offer you the chance to cleanse your souls,” the Reverend Mother replied.
“But you can’t seriously imagine your God would approve of this, can you?” I protested.
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” quoted the Reverend Mother blandly.
“Well, isn’t that handy?”
But the Reverend Mother paid no heed as she pulled out from beneath her robes her set of keys and began carelessly flipping through them. At the sight of the keys the wails from the incarcerated nuns reached a new crescendo. “Patience sisters,” called out the Reverend Mother, hushing them back down to a low moan. “Don’t I always provide for you?”
As she walked calmly round, thoughtfully eyeing up which lock to open first, I glanced around wildly, desperately searching for a way out. Michael and I were continuing to edge round, trying to avoid grasping arms that seemed to reach out to us from all directions. I glanced up helplessly at Michael and suddenly noticed the Reverend Mother’s torch hanging up on the wall behind him. “Redgrave – the torch!” I muttered desperately at him.
He reacted instinctively. Reaching out, he grasped the torch from it’s holder and, just as she was sliding a key into the lock of her chosen cage, he flung it at her. It hit her somewhere around the ribs with an impressive degree of force, forcing the Reverend Mother to bend double as it fell to the floor with a clatter.
The Reverend Mother painfully stretched back out and looked at us and for a moment I was afraid that all we had succeeded in doing was arousing her anger. But then she glanced down distractedly and that was when all three of us first noticed the flames which were licking all around her habit. The nuns howled and rattled their cage doors more furiously than ever as the Reverend Mother screamed and fell to the floor, rolling over and over in the dirt in an attempt to smother the flames.
We both stood transfixed for a moment before Michael grabbed at my arm. “Run!” he yelled and we sprinted off down the nearest passage as fast as we could.