The orchestra tunes up. Long tendrils of sound stream across the crypt. I close my eyes. The instruments stop momentarily. The sound echoes across the room. The first piece begins with a thunder. I startle from my reverie. My eyes jerk open and focus on an elderly couple. I have been in a medieval cathedral most of the day but it is this sight that reminds me the most starkly of my own mortality.
A chill hovers in the bright morning. One of the cathedral’s first visitors, I walk through the nave. The emptiness adds to its vastness. Supporting fingers stretch along each of the arches overhead. They remind me of spiders with six legs. A single candle burns at the far end, where Thomas Becket’s shrine stood before it was dismantled. The flame wavers in some unseen draft. The muffled voices of the few other visitors seem distant.
I stroll around the cloisters, under arches that are mostly intact. It seems impossible to have understood geometry and architecture so precisely so long ago. The sun sits low in the sky. The walkways as well as most of the courtyard remain in deep shade. I think about the monks who walked these same paths. The cold of the morning hovers in the stones, threatens to seep into my bones. I keep moving.
I see the evening’s concert advertised on small sandwich boards and return later. The cathedral glows warmly, the lights mostly out of view. The spires seem taller in the dark. I enter through a side entrance. Several steps, a small turning hallway, and then I am standing in a crypt. This fact, while not surprising, still startles me.
I imagined that breathing will be tight and dusty, but the space does not feel claustrophobic. The ceilings measure about 9 feet, but the room spans multiple times that wide, giving it an expansive quality. The far wall, backlit with purple, radiates eerily.
The capitals, the parts of the column right below the arches, feature carvings of wild scenes. Dragons bite musicians. Monsters rise from a mask. Animals play musical instruments: a winged ram plays a fiddle, a goat plays a clarinet, a lizard sings. The designs refuse to stay within the normal margins but spread all over the stone
A local college orchestra is playing tonight. The crowd varies widely. Some are obviously tourists. They take pictures and look around the room. Others = family members, locals – possess a familiarity with the space. They look at each other more, talk casually.
The group enters, sits, and tunes up. I close my eyes. All of the instruments stream in rising undulation. At the conductor’s command, they stop. The sound reverberates around the wide low space, the waves bouncing around my ears and back out across the room. The orchestra begins. My eyes wandered with the streaming sound of the tune up. They jerk open now.
I am looking at an elderly couple, seated diagonally from me. They are definitely local, probably in their mid-70s. They hold hands. Blue veins jut out from the tops of both. The man sways gently, continually, not in time with the music, but to some other internal metronome. The woman wears a plaid skirt that comes down to the middle of her thin calves. A strand of pearls gleams on her black top.
The spires, stones in the cloisters, monuments – so much today carried a legendary quality. This couple provides a resonating reminder of the fleetingness of time that has been hard to fathom the rest of the day. The realization that I will soon be that age, if I am fortunate. The shortness of my own life.
My heartbeat quickens but I do not panic. This is too much to process now I breathe deeply, close my eyes again, and fall back into the calming arms of the music.