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The Mad Monk of Mepkin
About the Author: Paul A. Barra novels include "The Secret of Maggie's Swamp," "A Death in the Hills," "Astoria Nights," “Death of a Sacristan," and “Westfarrow Island.” His short stories appear in national magazines and in the Mystery Writers of America anthology, “When a Stranger Comes to Town.” Visit him at

They trudged in from the early blackness, their cowls up and their eyes down. The corpus of a brother lay on the catafalque near the entrance, one of their number who died during the night. Flickering candlelight cast shadows on the dead man’s face. Since it was the time of the Great Silence, monks touched his foot as a sign of farewell as they entered, no one speaking aloud.

Brother Thomas stagger-stepped when he noticed blood dripping from the dead monk’s body. Brother Casimir steadied him by the elbow without commenting or raising his eyes. Thomas himself was barely awake and unsure of exactly what he had seen. He nodded to Casimir and wanted to seek corroboration from him, but they passed into their stalls without a word; the chanting began, and both joined in, but Thomas knew that a stilled heart could no longer pump blood.

His concentration on the singing and praying that opened each day at the monastery was diminished by what he had seen. He had to sound the alarm. There was a bleeding corpse in church.

Walking single-file over to the refectory for breakfast an hour later, he eased alongside the abbot under the shelter of the cloister in the cool predawn of March. The old man was easily recognizable dressed in his usual outside raiment: wool cap, wool coat and wool gloves. All black.

“Abbot,” he whispered.

Father Aelred looked at him with his eyebrows questioning.

“Urgent,” Thomas replied.

The two of them stepped out of line and Thomas told him in hushed tones about the blood from the corpse. The abbot looked old and confused. They hurried back to the chapel.

“I don’t even know who this is,” Dom Aelred said. “I didn’t know anybody had died. I’m meaning to ask Father Terrence about it.”

Thomas figured if the abbot didn’t know who had died, he probably didn’t know how either. Still, it was clear that blood had clumped from a wound in the white tunic of the dead man, drips of it having added to a drying blot on the tile floor of the nave. They had to break the Silence.

It broke like a storm out of the north.

“The body lying in the church is bleeding, brothers.”

Thomas spoke from behind a front table, holding the arm of the abbot. The scraping of china ceased suddenly as two dozen men looked up from their oatmeal.

“Does anyone know who he is?” the abbot asked in a reedy voice.

The monks all began to talk at once, voices shaken at the breach of monastic protocol and querulous because none of them recognized the corpse either and all thought someone else had laid him out. They were used to being kept in the dark about goings-on at the monastery and had long ago learned the virtue of patience. News was divulged at the general session following Sunday mass; they had learned to wait for that time—although nothing momentous as an unidentified dead monk had ever before been awaiting discussion.

Father Terrence Connally, the abbot’s aide and heir apparent stood and motioned for silence.

“I will phone the police, something we should have done an hour ago, it seems. Do you want everyone to go to work as usual when they finish eating, Dom Aelred?”

“Work? Er, yes. Please do.”

The abbot hadn’t thought much about what would happen next. When Terrence mentioned the police, it suddenly occurred to the old man that strangers who were not coming to partake of the spiritual benefits of the monastery would soon be on the hallowed grounds with machines and vulgar voices and with no thoughts of peace, strangers unlike the lay people who generally came to Mepkin Abbey for solitude among the working monks and the quietude of their lives.

It was a frightening idea, and he was glad to hear the confidence in Terrence’s voice as he addressed the breakfast crowd. Fortunately, none of the monastery’s five guests was in attendance yet.

“And I remind you all to speak honestly to the police if they have questions when they get here,” Terrence continued. “We’ll celebrate Lauds and mass back here in this room until the police are finished their work in the church.


The police, in the persons of Berkley County sheriff’s detectives Pressley Dunne and Juanita Morse, had questions long before they got out to the monastery.

“You sure you want me to go out there with Press, Cap? There ain’t any women out at that place. Them monks gonna be nervous talking to a woman.”

This story appears in our DEC 2023 Issue
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