Capela dos Ossos
I sip my café com leite while watching two very pretty young women walk towards the harbour. They smile and wave to me, posing provocatively. I am tempted, but shake my head on this occasion. They mock me with false disappointment.
I call over to them: ‘Maybe later.’
‘Maybe never if you don’t take your chances,’ shouts the taller one.
The Jardim da Praça Ferreira de Almeida is awash with early evening sun. It’s raining lilac flowers from the jacaranda tree above my table. Few tourists are abroad and I savour the tranquil quietness between planes approaching the airport a short distance along the coast.
I order a beer and run my fingers through the condensation on the glass. Sharp sunlight shines through the liquid casting a shadow of bubbles swirling in the bright amber like traces in a cloud chamber. It’s nearly time to leave.
‘A conta, faz favor?’
Millions of light-years away a star, not dissimilar to the Sun, went supernova. The huge forces generated by this event wrenched, pushed, and pummelled the matter created within the star into heavier elements. Its stardust would seed future solar systems where perhaps rare beautiful metals would adorn and give wealth to alien life-forms. Years later, a stream of high-energy protons escaped into the vastness of space from the sea of shockwaves created by the supernova. Their journey was halted eventually in the heart of a young monk, Nicolou, working in the city of Faro. The year was 1742.
Father Aurelio was a good perhaps great chess player. His knowledge of medicinal plants was second to none. He worked as a doctor caring for the poor in the Misericórdia hospital. My duties included tending the garden, ferrying the sick and dying in and out, and administering medication under his supervision.
‘You win Nicolou,’ said Father Aurelio knocking the king over with a flourish. ‘One day you may take my crown.’
‘But I only win one in every ten games and I’ve never beaten you consecutively.’
The old priest regarded me from under his bushy eyebrows. ‘You’d better hurry then unless you wish to continue our games in heaven, by the grace of God. ‘
‘Don’t go too soon. It’s unimaginable that the hospital will survive without your knowledge and healing powers.’
‘Only He has the power to heal. I am simply His servant, as you will be when He takes me.’
Four years later, Father Aurelio died after falling on a flagstone in the garden. His skull was broken. I never beat him in consecutive games of chess. He had been a good teacher and I continued his work. One evening as I relaxed in the summer house, a messenger arrived from the monastery:
‘Father Abbot Tito would like to see you.’
‘Do you know what about?’
I walked to the monastery with the taciturn messenger who insisted on accompanying me.
‘Ah, Nicolou. Good of you to come. Make yourself comfortable,’ the Abbot said as he handed me a glass of port.
He dismissed his entourage and when we were alone he leaned towards me conspiratorially.
‘I’ve been getting good reports about your work at the hospital. Your fame as a healer is known far and wide.’
‘I am thankful Father Abbot, but I owe it all to my teacher.’
‘Father Aurelio? Not a bit of it. Your talents far surpass his.’
I felt uncomfortable. The Abbot continued:
‘Tell me Nicolou, how long have you worked at the hospital?’
‘I don’t know. About fifteen years?’
‘And how old are you.’
‘I’m not sure. Thirty-five?’
‘According to my records, you’ve worked at the Misericórdia for twenty-five years and that means you must be at least forty-five. Do you know how old I am Nicolou?’
I looked at the Father Abbot observing his grey hair, paunch, and wrinkled skin.
‘I turned fifty today. What do you have to say about that?’
‘Happy birthday Father Abbot. May God bless you with many more,’ I stammered.
Abbot Tito handed me a mirror and spluttered. ‘Now look at yourself Nicolou.’
I saw the face of a young man almost without a blemish, clear brown eyes, and dark hair.
‘I want you to tell me what you’ve discovered that keeps you young. It’s your duty to share this and it’s sinful to keep it to yourself. I’ll see you’re rewarded handsomely.’
‘But I assure you Father Abbot, I know nothing about this.’
My hand tightens on the glass as I remember the anger and threats of Father Abbot Tito.
The short walk to the Capela dos Ossos clears my head. I look up at the skulls and bones that make up the walls of the chapel. I turn to a broken skull and pay my respects to Father Aurelio. I say a short prayer of thanks and gratitude in silence.
I take an old chess piece out of my pocket and kiss the head of the king in memory of my mentor.