The idea of for this story came as I watched an interview with the legendary professor of comparative mythology and comparative religion Joseph Campbell. He related an evening he spent doing exactly what the narrator does in this story. The man in the church was real and Campbell visited him and was shown the Black Madonna from his small chamber. Something magical happened in me while I heard Campbell telling that. I wrote the story within the next half hour.
The man who lived inside the church gave tours from time to time. It was the stained glass that brought people in. The church was not otherwise unique save one item: the Black Madonna.
This man asked if I would like to go up and ring the bell.
The church was more of a cathedral, I suppose. The difference between a church and a cathedral is that a church is anywhere people congregate to worship and is run by a pastor or a priest; a cathedral is also a church but one that is overseen by a bishop and is the main church within a diocese, the land lying within a bishop’s jurisdiction. The name cathedral comes from the name of the chair that a bishop sits in.
I very much wanted to ring the bell. And I did. I followed the man up to the bell and pulled the thick rope. It was what I hoped it would be, and it was the first thing I missed when I left later that afternoon. But before then, there was this thing about the Black Madonna.
The Black Madonna is an icon, most often in the form of a small statue made of wood colored black or dark brown. The coloration is either from years and years of candle smoke or made this way originally to match the indigenous people of the region in which the icon is kept. This difference is often a point of contention among experts and scholars.
After the man who lived inside the cathedral let me ring the bell he asked if I’d like to see his room.
In this cathedral, like most, you have a layout with the nave, the transept, and the apse.
The nave is the central part of the cathedral. Think of the area where the congregation sits during mass, readily described as the area for the lay worshippers. Just before the beginning of the nave is the west end of the cathedral, and it is referred to generally as just that: the west end. At this front area of the building is the entrance, which also contains the façade that looks onto the street.
If a church member were to begin walking to the eastern end of the cathedral, toward the altar, at a certain point they would make their way through a crossing section, the transept. This completes an interior form of the cross, with the apse at the top, or the east end. The transept also functions as a divider between the general congregation and the choir and clergy.
The apse provides the place where the choir and clergy meet and also houses the alter, the cathedral’s central focus. Think of the rounded section that is most often shaped as a half-dome. Around the apse is the choir screen, or what is sometimes called the rood screen, or simply the rood, rood being derived from the Saxon word rode, which means cross.
The entire setup, experienced in total, is breathtaking, no less so in this cathedral.
He took me through a little door leading beyond the choir screen. Inside, he showed me a small bed, a nightstand, and a lamp on the nightstand that barely illuminated the area. Without saying anything, the man stepped over to his bed and sat down. For several seconds he sat there like that and only smiled at me. He continued with this until I understood he wanted me to come sit beside him. So I did. As soon as I sat down, the man who lived inside the cathedral pointed just over my right shoulder and asked what I thought.
When I looked in the direction he pointed, I immediately saw the Black Madonna through an opening about the size of a bay window. The man who lived inside the cathedral spent his private time with this view, alone in this way hearing his own pulse going in his temples, uniquely aware of the air moving through his lungs and then out again, thinking of nothing more than the Black Madonna herself and perhaps the clear sound the bell makes on quiet mornings in winter.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a short story writer from Kentucky. He is the author of seven books, most recently the collection Sway (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2020). He also believes that baseball is our purest form of truth.