Who is Chuck and why does he like to travel?

I was born to be a writer and when I wrote my novel Wild Point Island, Chuck, my orange and white recently rescued feral tabby, got it in his head that he wanted to travel to the island and see the place for himself. Well, of course, Wild Point Island, can only be seen by revenants (you'll have to read the book to find out who they are) and Chuck is no revenant so instead, I concocted a plan to take Chuck with me when I travel around the world, which I do frequently. Not an easy task. First, I have to deflate the poor kid of all air, stuff him in my carry-on bag, remember to bring my portable pump, and when I arrive, I pump him back up. Ouch. But he's used to it by now and given the choice to either stay home in his comfy cat bed or get deflated, he pulls out his passport, ready to travel, every time.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Chuck Is Put Off by Mummies In Crypt

Usually when the “rascal cat” and I end up in unusual situations, it is Chuck’s idea.  But this time, in Palermo, as we sped across town in Alesandro’s taxi, we had a date with destiny because I couldn’t get an idea out of my head.  
Ever since I’d heard about the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo and the bodies they had on display, I had a yen to see them.  
And, yes, once you understand what I’m referring to you, you might consider it a bit macabre . . . but imagine, nothing like this kind of display exists in America.  
But let me explain. 
I’d been to Sicily four years before, but never made it to Palermo because, unfortunately, we’d stayed on the Taormina side of Sicily and been on a rather tight schedule.  This time when we returned to Sicily, I was determined to spend the bulk of our time in Palermo and carve out a visit to the “Catacombe dei Cappucini.”
        I imagined that I’d be there for hours, but Alesandro, who volunteered to wait while Bob, Chuck and I went inside assured me that we’d be out in less than an hour.  
How curious, I thought, that he would say that, or had I somehow misunderstood.
After all, Alesandro spoke only Italian and I was using my best tourist Italian to communicate.  
“You will see,” he predicted.  “Forty five minutes even.”
I shot him a puzzled look.
He tried to explain, and then I understood.  
It is difficult to stay too long, he seemed to be saying, amidst so much death.  
        That was my first clue that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all.
But let me give you some history because I knew the history of these catacombs going in.  
The Catacombe dei Cappucini was first a 16th century cemetery until the monks began to excavate the crypts below the cemetery.  In 1599 they “mummified” one of their members who died, originally intending the crypt only for the monks.  BUT over the centuries dignitaries and townspeople began to consider it fashionable to be buried and preserved there.  Relatives visited and paid money to see their family members displayed in a prominent place.  When the money ceased, the bodies were moved to less prominent places and categorized. 
There were sections created for Women, and Men, Virgins and Priests, etc.  The catacombs were closed in 1888, and by that time the crypt contained 8,000 mummies.  

Although the crypt was officially closed, burials continued.  One of the last people to be embalmed and brought to the crypt was the most famous--two year old Rosalie Lombardo--famous because to this day she is the most well preserved of all the people there. Dubbed “Sleeping Beauty” she shows little signs of decomposition despite the passage of time.    
I was anxious to see this display.  
We arrived precisely at nine, and the large wooden door to the crypt was closed and locked.  I knocked but no one answered.  Alesandro shrugged.  Italians.  They are not known for their punctuality.
           Sure enough, within a few minutes, the door opened and for a minor fee of a few Euro, we were allowed in and directed down a long hallway that smelled a bit musty.  
           We passed whitewashed walls with large signs that said -- No Photos.  But I soon realized that we were the only ones there.  The floor slanted downwards.  We were descending into the bowels of the earth.  
What did I expect to see? In truth, I hadn’t done much research.  I read a little, but hadn’t seen any photos or You Tube videos so the first sight of the bodies hanging on hooks along the walls stopped me in my tracks.  And there were bodies on shelves, lined up against the wall.  And more bodies posed in various positions.  We walked up and down the aisles, minute after minute, passing women and men, young and old.  We read the categories and noted the professions.  

Some of the people were better preserved than others.  Some looked peaceful; some did not.  

I stopped a few times to catch my breath.  To take a closer look.  To look away.  To absorb the moment . . . that this catacomb contained a microcosm of the human race over a span of approximately 400 years.  
We were almost at the end of the catacomb -- and by design the tourist is led to Rosalie Lombardo.  Her casket covered in glass and two other tiny caskets are behind metal bars in a chapel.  I peered through the bars and the glass, then stared at the complexion of a girl who looked asleep and yet who died of pneumonia on December 2, 1920.  

It seems to be almost a miracle until you learn the story behind what seems an illusion.  When Rosalie died, her griefstricken father approached Alfred Salafia, a noted embalmer, to preserve her.   When he died, it was believed the secret of his technique died with him, but recently his techniques were discovered in a handwritten memoir that he wrote.   

And what was Chuck doing all this time?  Absolutely nothing.  For the first time, the kid was as good as gold.  Well behaved.  And, perhaps, a bit off put by the surroundings?
But I’d had enough.  I needed fresh air and sunshine.  
It was exactly 45 minutes.  
On the way out, we did what every tourist does . . . we stopped at the Gift Shop and bought the most exquisite rosary beads . . . pretty enough to wear as jewelry.    


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