by Julie Guerra
“And now, like the monks, you will take a vow of silence. No talking as we walk to the abbey, starting…now.” I made eye contact with my friend across the room and we shared a smile. We were wearing bland gray robes over our clothes, tied at the middle with slim rope. I wondered just how in-character they expected us to be.
We exited the Fountains Abbey information center and made our way to the beginning of the path, a silent group of about thirty teenagers dressed as monks. It was a soggy kind of day, the sky a uniform, pearlescent gray. Icy mist clung to our skin and clothes, and made the grass pale and glittery. I caught up to my friend, trying to telepathically communicate with her about how bizarre this was. Being in England was already strange enough, but dressing up as monks and exploring the ruins of an old abbey seemed like the kind of thing that only happened in stories.
“All right now,” said one of the two guides, “From this moment until I tell you to stop, you are monks, so you’re going to act like monks. Hoods up, everyone, heads down. Hold your hands together in front of you, like so.” The guide demonstrated. “We’ll be walking in a line two by two so get yourselves organized.”
My friend rolled her eyes at me, but we both complied, making sure to situate ourselves next to one another. There was a bit of shuffling as we all tried to get into a line without communicating. A few girls next to us stifled laughter as they rushed around and squeezed between people to get in line.
The hood of my robe was big and fell down to my eyes when I put it up. The sleeves were oversized as well, and it didn’t take much to shake them down over my hands, protecting them slightly from the hostile air. I clasped my hands together and waited for the bustling to cease.
After standing still for a moment in a formation that loosely resembled two parallel lines, we followed the guides as they set off down the gravel path. I glanced quickly at the window of an old building to my right, catching sight of our reflections, but for a moment I couldn’t recognize them. In the dark, warped glass of the window, we seemed to take on the form of medieval shadows, apparitions of the past that were unidentifiable in formless robes. Before I could marvel at the transformation, we had moved beyond the window and the ghosts disappeared.
The grounds of the abbey were sprawling, and the gravel path we traversed wound through the grass like a snake, constantly turning corners and revealing a different view. We walked by a crumbling stone bridge over a small stream. Trees bowed over the path as if in prayer, leaves brushing the ground. Birds chimed out flitting, ephemeral hymns; the only other noise aside from the crunch of footsteps.
Our solemn procession eventually made it to the ruins. They were dark silhouettes towering against the gray sky, wreathed in green. Shattered stone walls arched upwards as if trying to crawl away from the ground, sticking out of the earth like the fractured ends of broken bones. Some parts still held an original imprint of what the building must have looked like when it was constructed in the twelfth century, but most of it had yielded to the weight of time. Gaping holes peppered the walls like a botched execution.
This ruin was like life support for the past, trying to keep history breathing even though its heart had stopped a long time ago. There was a stale sort of hope that it would return, would open its eyes and continue on as if nothing had happened.
We split off into two groups with one guide each so we weren’t cramped in the small corridors of the abbey. I approached the ruins cautiously, keeping to the back of the group. Our guide explained that the roof of the abbey had been taken away during the dissolution of the monasteries in the fifteen hundreds and had been melted down for the lead. The stone walls that still stood formed an outline of where the roof should have been.
Even after the guide gave us permission to talk, I remained silent, shivering in the frigid air. I gazed up at the towering walls, feeling like a mourner at a funeral despite the happily chattering students surrounding me. I was walking were medieval monks had walked, had lived their lives. They might have once stood in this same exact spot as I was standing, their feet would have touched the same ground. They couldn’t have known that eventually their grand abbey would be dismembered and hollowed out.
The grave of an abbots was still visible in the floor of one of the main chambers. It was a life sized plaque in the ground, placed between two rows of cracked pillars. Resting in the middle of it was the carved form of the abbot. Grass crept over the edges of the hewn stone like outstretched fingers, trying to banish the abbot from sight and pull him further into the ground. Had he been standing, he would have barely been taller than the shortest teenager in the group.
Without a roof and most of the walls, the abbey was more like the suggestion of a building, the scar tissue, the bones of a carcass. It felt dead, like the stones themselves were bodies left to moulder. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, concentrating on the cold air and the rustling leaves. Perhaps if I just took a moment and stood still, my mind would compensate for the centuries that had passed and I’d be able to see it the way the monks had. But when I opened my eyes the abbey was still decaying.
Our group marched up a winding staircase and into a small tower chamber with windows that overlooked the core of the abbey. “The monks used to sing from up here. The acoustics are fantastic! Would anyone like to give it a try?” asked the guide. We all shuffled awkwardly, none of us saying a word. The guide chuckled. “All right then, we’ll carry on.”
The abbey was a strange configuration. Hallways were filled with grass, walls stopped at odd angles, the ceiling was the sky. None of it seemed to add up to a place that could ever have been lived in. And yet it had. That was the room that the monks would get their blood drawn with leeches. This was the room that they would sing in. These were the halls they would walk through.
I shuddered and crossed my arms, trying to retain some warmth as we walked back into the open air. The guide kept talking, throwing facts at us that I would never be able to completely remember, but that didn’t stop me from trying as hard as I could. I didn’t want to forget a single moment. I wanted to soak in the history and keep it with me even after the two week school trip was over so I could revisit it whenever I wanted. There were no great ruins like this back home.
As we moved through an arched hallway, close to the grave of the abbot, a sound floated towards us, carried by a numbing draft of air. It was something other than bird song and the soft chatter of the students. I stopped and looked up, my eyes scanning the sharp edges of the abbey.
When I recognized the sound as singing, my breath froze in my lungs. The monks were singing. Their songs must have sunk into the stones and were now emanating from the walls around us. My eyes flickered around, waiting for the manifestation of ethereal spirits to emerge from the surrounding fog. Perhaps our robes had fooled them into rising and joining the people they thought were their brothers. I listened to the ancient voices drifting through the mist.
“… wooooorld, she took the midnight train goin’ aaaaaanyyyyyywheeeeeere.”
We turned a corner and came into view of the tower. Through the bare windows I could see the gray robes and blue sweatshirts of the other group. Their guide must have convinced them to test out the acoustics. It was the song that had somehow been chosen as the anthem for our trip, it was sung during bus rides and while walking around cities. And now it was being sung in a decrepit place of worship, bouncing off of the same stones as Latin hymns once did.
Air escaped my lungs in a quiet huff, sparkling in front of me for a moment before evaporating. I glanced around, this time trying to find my friend instead of the ghosts of people who had died so long ago they were now most likely nothing more than dust in the ground. The monks did not appear, the dead remained silent, and I was no longer waiting for the impossible to happen. But at least the guide was right about the acoustics.
Julie Guerra is an undergraduate senior at the University of Maine at Farmington. She is majoring in both Creative Writing and English, with a minor in Theatre.