Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

The good sister slid out of her cell into the dank obscurity of the long and hollow corridor of the abbey which led to the august wooden front doors. She lifted the heavy latch then penetrated the cold layers of thick night, carefully closing the doors behind her. A moonless and starless night it was : greyish clouds fringed with undulating black hung low in the cold air, an air filled with the scent of jonquils. The good sister crossed the tussock grass of the meadow, glistening with moisture, swiftly to the rhythm of the howling wolves, whose ululations seemed to make quiver the cloudlets, driving them galloping across the sullen skies, grazing ever so lightly the pinnacles of the friendless, fretted cliffs of Saint Martin. Those precipices stole furtive glances down at the hastening young sister, their hanging pines, minatory fingers pointing to the nocturnal interloper. And as the wind wailed like the melancholic notes of an organ, the fingers quietly lamented, shedding needles and cones of utter sorrow …

The holy sister, sandal-less, dressed only in a bleached white nightdress, seemed to waft on strings of mist like a phantom as she glided alongside the mighty abbey walls, rising high. She stole a glance at the soundless immured fountain of the abbey and the holy niche next to it housing the Virgin Mary. She lowered her eyes, crossed herself then sped on. Noiselessly she made her way upon the path which serpentined to the source of the Paillon streamlets. The exuding fragrance of jonquils caused her a moment of vertigo as she hied higher and higher towards the sacred source. Once she reached the source, she halted before the little cascade, silvery in the ill-lit sky, tinkling an odd tinkle amidst the whimpering of the groves of weeping willows that enshrined it. She took a furtive glance behind her … no one …

The good sister stepped into the rushing icy waters. Lifting her nightdress in a rather girlish manner, she let it drop, and there it spread in cadence to the precipitating flow like the opening of a lotus. The freezing waters seized her slender thighs in a vice-like grip. At that moment the wolves renewed their howl after a ritornello[1]. She raised her head to the tune, such soothing music to her ears, and slowly opened her fist: a shard of glass lay in her tiny palm. Her hand trembled from the coldness at the source ; her body gradually became rigid like a marble statue, the turbulent waters sweeping round her. 

The holy sister murmured several prayers then gazed alternatively at the deepening violet tinge of the sky and the deep blue of the veins of her wrists. In one rapid stroke she slid the shard of glass across those deep blue veins : as quickly as that ! Two sharp painless incisions and it was over, all accomplished in such cold-blooded precision. There she remained standing, her rich, red blood dripping down over her now steady hands, then into the pure waters of the source : drop, drop, drop …

Some time passed. The howling of the wolves had abated, the wind, too. The dreary clouds hung lower and lower over the paling sister, who wavered not once, adamantly erect, watching in the most unperturbable manner the blood desert her frail body into the moving waters. Her face, lovely like the fourteenth day of the moon, turned an ashen white.

Soon, however, her knees began to buckle, her slender body to sway, emptied of its life-giving fluid. She appeared to be lost in some dreamy plane of consciousness, her face, blank, expressionless. At length, like a icicle fallen from a frost-bitten tree, she tumbled gently into the churning white foam, and there floated listlessly down the streamlet, the traces of blood trailing behind her, until here and there they settled upon the smooth mossy stones and pebbles that lay at the bed. Her nightdress swelled with water and resembled a hoisted sail, yet mast-less, a vessel adrift, driven from one bank to the other.

Finally, the bloodless body got snagged onto several smooth, flat-surfaced mossy rocks, and there undulated to the rhythm of the current, eyes wide open, mouth agape, basking in the blackness of Eternal Night …

With the coming of dawn, the call to Matins[2] brought the holy sisters of the Saint Pons Abbey scurrying to the chapel. All were accounted besides one : Where was Sister Theresa ? Had she not heard the tolling bell? The Abbess, somewhat worried by her absence (Theresa was never absent for service), rushed out to see whether the young girl had fallen ill and taken to bed. But her cell was empty ; her bed lay unmade, not a crease in the bedsheets. More startling still, her cornet[3] and habit[4] lay neatly placed and folded on the chair next to her writing-table. Had she left a note ? None …

The Abbess interrupted Matins and commanded that the sisters go in search for the young girl both in the cloister and outside in the meadow and wooded areas. Taking four or five sisters with her, the old Abbess hurried down the corridor to the great wooden doors : the latch had been displaced ! Seized with an emotional foreboding, she led the troop of sisters through the cold air of early morning, an air saturated with icy dew and a scent of spruce. They avoided the meadow for now, choosing to hug the great stone walls glistening with creeping and climbing plants, and search behind the abbey in the woods now painted in aurora freshness. “Theresa ! Theresa !” They all called, the name resounding sullenly in the lifting mist, its echo growing fainter and fainter only to disappear without a response. “Here ! Here !” cried a sister who had been searching near the sacred source. To her frantic cries the good sisters scrambled up the path, alive to the shouts and cries near the source ; they ran as fast as their aged legs could carry them, tucking up their habits under their hempen cords, clinging to the wings of their cornets as they flapped in the crisp, cold air.

Hieing ever higher up the path, they followed the cries near the source, dipping into the hollows of the dingle, rushing as rapidly as their sandalled feet would carry them along the streamlet fringed with high reeds, tiny poppies and those pendent weeping willows. The old Abbess noted that the smooth mossy stones in the streamlet bed had been besprinkled with long streaks or large splotches of crimson red. Her emotion reached frightful peaks as she hurried onwards towards the cries …

And there, at the bank of the streamlet, the sister who had been calling and clamouring so wildly pointed a trembling finger at the lifeless, undulating body of their consœur[5], floating like a lotus amongst the sun-dappled babbling morning waters, her waxen cheeks bloodless, her limbs stiff, her stony eyes staring off into void. There arose from her watery presence an eerie peacefulness, serenity, quiescence, a presence far beyond that undulating corpse upon the sun-dappled waters of the Paillon.

All the holy sisters dropped to their knees at the banks of the streamlet and prayed. Then they dragged the water-logged body out of the stream and lay it upon the grassy bank. To their bewilderment, the moss which clung to the smooth stones and pebbles of the stream-bed, always a dull green or a rusty ochre-yellow, had become lacquer red ! Large patches of this red moss lay at the bottom of the shallow, foamy waters. The Abbess touched, pulled and scraped at the woolly crimson ; the satiny colour remained impressed in the moss. She hadn’t the faintest idea how the rusty red had not been washed away or dispersed by her fiddling with it. Was it Theresa’s blood ?

The very thought made her shudder … Daunted by this dreadful phenomena and by the death of their consœur, the Abbess ordered the holy sisters to kneel and lift their eyes to Heaven again.

The days that followed the tragic event throngs of priests, led by the Bishop of the region, inspected the place of death and the red moss. The Abbess was at a loss to explain Theresa’s act to them, but she truly believed that it was the innocent blood of the poor young sister that had ‘dyed’ the green moss red, this colour being the ‘consubstantial proof’ of the consummation of her marriage to Christ. And for this very ‘theological’ reason, her act, albeit a sinful one, the moss disavowed any attempt to be ‘washed off’ and become green again. The Abbess went on to expound that upon taking the veil, the girl had seemed so loyal to her vows, so happy to spend her life at the abbey in company with her consœurs, all the more so since her parents had died, and the aunt that had taken her in was too old to provide the orphan with a correct upbringing and education. No other enquiry followed after the Abbess’ account and the Bishop’s report …

Thus the suicide and the colouring of the moss remained a Mystery to the clergy and to the laymen of the region of Geminos[6] until the closing of the abbey in 1427.

Centuries have gone by since the mysterious event, and the great walls and halls of the Saint Pons Abbey presently lay in quiet dormancy. However, little by little, hikers, nature-lovers, botanists, geologists and the curious-minded who reside in the area of Geminos began noticing this unusual moss, even snatching little pieces of it out of the water for scientific scrutiny. The scientists were indeed at loggerheads about this chromatic colouring, and obviously scoffed at the mediaeval clergy’s ridiculous ‘dark age’ inferences of suicide and consummation, although it must be said here that after months of examination in several laboratories, those scoffing rationally-minded scientists could make neither heads nor tails of how ‘normal green’ moss could ‘become’ satine crimson red overnight …

And so the Mystery still stands today as hikers, nature-lovers, scientists and members of the clergy come to inspect, admire or simply stare in wonder at the red moss of the Abbey of Saint Pons, undulating in stoic silence beneath the crystal clear waters of the Paillon streamlet. Many indeed believe in the tragic tale of Theresa, and in the good Abbess’ hypothesis, whilst others gibe and mock, believing the isolated sisters to have been possessed by some mediaeval demon, or taken to religious zealotry after so many fastings and privations.

I for one believe in the tale as told by the good Abbess, however steeped in ‘dark age superstition’ it may appear to the scientific-minded, modern layman. Indeed, according to the regional archives, a certain sister Theresa did take the veil and did live at the abbey in the XVth century, and after several years her bloodless body was found lifeless, floating in those rolling waters of the Paillon. This being said, several historians claim that Theresa had been abducted by bandits, whose presence in the dark wooded mountains had always caused great fright to the sisters. When Theresa attempted to escape from captivity, she was killed. Just as a matter of interest, it was because of those bands of roaming bandits that the holy sisters were obliged to leave the abbey by order and mandate of the constable of the region. The Abbey, thus, was closed down never to reopen …

Whatever the ‘rational’ or ‘romantic’ reason may be, the red moss at Saint Pons Abbey attracts a growing number of the curious-minded, and has become so ‘famous’ that the Forest Rangers have given strict orders to all and sundry not to pick it out of its hallow bed. I shall not attempt to debate whether this interdiction be due to any ‘scientific’ or ‘superstitious’ prompting …

[1] A short refrain or interlude in a musical performance

[2]  The first prayer of the day in a monastery or convent.

[3]   Bonnets worn by religious sisters until the 1960s.

[4]  Dress worn by religious orders.

[5]  A community of Catholic sisters living in a convent or in a monastery. The word is of French origin.

[6]  A small village twenty or thirty kilometres from Marseilles. The abbey is located about five or six kilometres from Geminos.

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.



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