What Is It?
Brother Guillermo locked the store room door, the iron key cold in his hands. A branch snapped behind him and he turned. His heart pounded against his chest but he saw nothing moving. Twilight oozed through the trees like smoke.
But nothing moved.
He shook his head and stuffed the key in his belt pouch. The rough wool itched his fingers. He set off for the dormitory, his sandals slipping on the rough ground. Spain had not faired well under Franco, that was no secret. But Mother Nature herself seemed to rebel, punishing them with a harsh winter and late spring. The trails all over the monastery were littered with fallen branches and leaves.
Guillermo heard another crunch behind him. “Who’s there?” He swept the gathering darkness, but saw nothing. No one answered him. “Answer me!” he commanded in his best imitation of Father Miguel. Still nothing.
It must have been some animal, disturbed at his passing. Guillermo wished that Raul, at least, had stayed behind. But the young monk nearly danced with excitement at the prospect of seeing the Archbishop in the town square, so Guillermo agreed to stay behind alone to keep an eye on things. Franco’s soldiers hadn’t been seen in three weeks and the rebels in the area wouldn’t bother the monastery.
A branch snapped, this time so close that it seemed loud to him. He whirled, but saw only shadow. Abandoning his dignity, he turned and ran for the dormitory. His breath whistled painfully in his chest and a stitch stabbed his side but still he ran. He stumbled up to the back door and fumbled with the key. He nearly sobbed with desperation as it stuck in the lock. He pushed frantically at it and it finally gave. He fell inside and kicked the door shut.
Guillermo heard a footstep. A heavy tread moved up to the door and tried the handle. Shaking like a leaf, Guillermo got to his feet and slipped his sandals off. He ran quietly for the stairs and went up them two at a time, the stitch in his side forgotten. He threw open the door to the kitchen and slammed it behind him. He tried to still his breathing as he listened, but his heartbeat drowned everything out.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,” Guillermo prayed. He recited the entire Lord’s Prayer and started on a Hail Mary when he heard it. A footstep on the stair on the other side of the door.
He fell backwards, tripping over his robes, and scrambled out of the kitchen. He ran through the refectory, slamming the door behind him and throwing the bolt. He raced for the stairs and took them two at a time, his knees complaining. At the top, he flashed down the hall, the bedrooms on either side of him appearing like dreams in his peripheral vision. He wrenched open the door to the attic stairs and slammed it shut behind him, fumbling in his pouch for the secondary ring of keys.
By the time he got the correct key out and fitted into the lock, his breathing had calmed enough to listen. He pressed his ear to the door, trembling so hard the rosary tucked into his belt rattled faintly. He had very nearly decided the coast was clear when a footstep sounded in the hall on the other side of the door. He put both feet against the door and set his back against the wall opposite, his arm leaning on the stairs beside him. He stuffed his fist in his mouth to keep from screaming.
The door handle rattled slightly.
“Go away!” Brother Guillermo shouted, his voice much higher than its usual baritone.
The handle moved down, then up. Nothing happened, since Guillermo had locked it, but it happened twice more.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Guillermo recited under his breath, tears coursing down his cheeks. His body shivered painfully as he said the entire Psalm.
The footsteps paced back and forth outside the door, every so often stopping in front of it. Sometimes the handle would jiggle, sometimes it wouldn’t. Once came a knock, the sound so sudden and sharp that Guillermo cried out.
“Go away!” he yelled, spots in front of his eyes. “Go away…”
The footsteps continued. Back three. Forward three. Stop. Rattle the handle. Pause. Back three. Back another one. Forward three. Pause. Back three. Stop. Forward again. Rattle.
The shout brought him out of a cramped sleep, wedged at the bottom of the attic stairs and the door. His neck burned from the constriction and his right hand fell numb.
“Guillermo!” Raul’s voice sounded panicked.
“Raul?” Guillermo gasped. “Raul!” Guillermo fell as he tried to stand, his left leg asleep. It erupted in pins and needles as he struggled to rise. “Raul! I’m in the attic!”
Raul’s light steps raced up to the door and tried the handle. “It’s locked, Guillermo! Are you okay? Father Miguel! I found him!” Raul’s voice carried, loud even through the door.
Guillermo’s hands couldn’t hold onto the keys they were so slick with sweat. They made an almighty crash when he dropped them.
“Guillermo!” Raul shouted, pounding on the door. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Raul, calm down. I dropped the keys, is all.” Guillermo found the right key and fitted it in the lock.
Raul nearly fell through the door when he opened it. He flung his arms around Guillermo’s neck and squeezed so tight Guillermo had trouble breathing.
“Raul, calm down!”
“We thought you were dead!”
“What?” Guillermo echoed in shock.
Father Miguel strode up, face grave. “Brother Guillermo. We had feared for your safety.”
Father Miguel pointed. There, clearly outlined on the wood slats of the floor, lay large footprints. They weren’t human.
“What was it?” Raul asked, eyes huge.
“I don’t know,” Guillermo whispered. “I never saw it!”