A German bishop named Johanne Fugger, traveling to Rome for an audience with the Pope in the year 1113, sent his servant ahead to discover all the best wine along the route. When his servant found what he determined to be the finest wine in any village, he would write the Latin word “Est” in chalk on the door of the inn so the bishop would know where to stop, Est being a word that in this instance meant “Here it is.”
The bishop’s servant was so impressed with the Moscato wine in the town of Montefiascone, Italy, that he wrote on the door of the inn with great enthusiasm, “Est! Est!! Est!!!,” an appellation that remains attached to the wine of that region even now. It seems the servant knew his master’s tastes well. Bishop Fugger was so enthralled with the wine that he remained in Montefiascone and kept drinking. He drank himself to death. From the stuporous fog of his last moments on earth, with his final breath it is said, he asked that his great wealth be left in trust and that every year, on the anniversary of his death, a barrel of Moscato be poured over his grave.
“Is that really your name? Raffi?”
Rafael looked up from the espresso pouring into a shot glass and into the tight smirk of a face he’d seen before. He’d only been working as a barista at the coffeehouse for a few days, but the customer had been in several times, a regular.
“It’s short for Rafael,” he said, and smiled gamely.
“My parents made me listen to that singer, Raffi, when I was kid,” said the customer. “God, what a dork that guy was. What is that, a Mexican name?”
“It can be. In my case, it’s Italian.”
“My family used to be Italian too, but they came over so long ago they were settlers not immigrants, you know what I mean, before the Revolution.”
“Your cappuccino,” said Raffi, placing the cup and saucer on the service counter.
The customer stared down at the drink and waved his finger over it. “You know this arty farty stuff is completely lost on me, so don’t waste your time. The other baristas will tell you, Billy is a regular and spends a lot of money in here, but he doesn’t need pictures on his cappuccino.”
Billy picked up the cup, leaving the saucer behind, started to turn, then stopped and turned back. “Okay, I have to admit, I’ve never seen that before and it’s kind of cool.” He showed his cup to the customer next to him. She nodded and smiled, then rolled her eyes as Billy walked away.
Pouring wine over the grave of bishop Fugger became not only a ritual in the town of Montefiascone, but a time of celebration, a large festival so cherished that when the bishop’s money was gone, the tradition continued nevertheless. That is, until 1657, when the plague came to Montefiascone. With the plague came Capuchin monks, summoned by the mayor to establish a friary and care for the sick and dying.
The humble Franciscan friars made the townsfolk feel ashamed for the money they spent on a ridiculous celebration punctuated by the wasteful pouring of wine over a grave. They encouraged a new tradition. Money that would have been spent on the barrel of wine and countless other frivolities associated with the annual event, was used instead to help the poor. The change to this new tradition was far from welcomed by all. After a few years of being deprived of their celebration, a group of belligerent men, drunk on their beloved Moscato, confronted the Capuchin monks.
The next day, from the middle of the line where he was waiting to order, Billy called out. “Hey Ravioli, how about another skull today. I forgot to take a picture and the morons upstairs don’t believe me.”
The other baristas looked at Raffi, who just shook his head. “I think it was a tulip,” he murmured.
Billy frowned at his cappuccino a few minutes later. “What is that, a whole skeleton? I like the skull better but a whole skeleton, that’s cool too. Morbid as hell, though.”
“It’s a rosette, brother.” said Raffi.
“A what? No way. That’s a skeleton, a skeleton sitting cross-legged.” Billy showed his drink to the man waiting next to him, who said it looked like a flower.
“Whatever,” said Billy, turning his back on Raffi, talking as he walked away. “Next time I want just that big skull, and I’m not your bother. My brother isn’t even my brother.”
Of course, all the monks refused to fight or even defend themselves… all the monks except one, Brother Raffaele Fossombrone. It was no secret that leaders of their order questioned Raffaele’s devotion to their “Rule of Life” and considered him, perhaps, too impetuous and undisciplined for the Capuchin Brotherhood. Their concerns proved valid when the mob began shoving the monks and Brother Fossombrone backhanded one of the men across the face, shouting, “How dare you put your hands on men of God.”
This was all the excuse the angry mob needed. Since Fossombrone was the only monk willing to fight, the men converged on him and beat him in a wild frenzy until pleas from the other monks and the hands of others from the town stopped them. It was too late. He died a short time later as they were still tending to his wounds. His fellow monks carried his body back to Rome and he was buried in the crypt under the Capuchin church, Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins.
Billy was back after lunch and had another man with him, a man who didn’t look happy to be there. “That’s him,” said Billy, while standing right in front of Raffi. “He’s some sort of hipster goth kid, makes these spooky pictures on my cappuccinos. Do the skull. I want to show Tony.”
Raffi shook his head. “I told you, brother, it was a tulip, and this morning a rosette, and this,” he said, setting a cup down in front of Billy, “is a heart.”
“Jesus,” said Billy, staring down at his cappuccino. “You’re a sicko. I mean a skull is one thing, but that looks like … like a bloody heart inside a rib cage.”
Tony leaned over the drink and said, “It’s just a heart, like Valentine’s day. It’s sweet.” He made a heart with his hands as he backed away toward the door.
Billy looked at Raffi, squinted, then started to chuckle. “It’s some sort of joke. I get it. It’s clever. What color is the dress, right? I don’t know how you’re doing it. I don’t care actually. Whatever. It’s over now, enough with the pictures, and stop calling me brother.”
In the years after Brother Fossombrone was beat to death, the people of Montefiascone grew to believe all their misfortune was due to a curse, the curse of the Capuchin monk. The earthquake of 1697, a mysterious epidemic in 1791, cholera in 1837 and 1855, meningitis in 1916, bombing by the allies in 1944, a deadly blizzard in 1956, all these things were said to be a consequence of the curse. Ironically, the first to help during all these tragic events were the Capuchin monks; and though the townspeople accepted the help gratefully, it was said to be bad luck to look a monk in the eye, “lest our shame be made manifest and bring on the next calamity that much sooner.” So strong was this superstition, that when their Moscato wine fell out of favor, when it “lost its charm,” they blamed the curse.
Billy did not come into the coffeehouse the next day, but the day after that he waited quietly in line, frowning at his phone. He didn’t look at Raffi. Even as he stood at the service counter waiting for his drink, he kept his eyes on his phone and didn’t look up. Raffi set the cappuccino down in front of him and he blinked, moving his eyes from his phone to his drink. His expression, drooping eyelids and a deep, pouty frown, did not change.
“That’s a pile of bones with skulls on top,” he said, as if it was exactly what he expected to see on his cappuccino.
“What you are now, they once were; what they are now, you shall be.”
Billy looked up at Raffi but then let his gaze drift from his eyes to his shoulder. “What the hell does that mean? What are you talking about?”
“I said, we call it a bellflower,” said Raffi. “It’s only a bellflower, nothing more.”
“Bellflower,” said Billy, nodding as if this made perfect sense. “Sure. It’s a bellflower.”
The custom among Capuchin monks at Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins until the 19th century—the results of which can still be seen today—was to disinter bodies that had been buried for many years and use the bones to decorate the interior of the church. However, when Brother Raffaele Fossombrone was unburied, decades after his death, they found his body mummified. The withered, leathery skin was dark and shrunk to the bone, but largely intact, as was his Franciscan robe. Having no idea why such a thing would occur, they left the body the way they found it and placed it in the chapel, sitting on the ledge of a small alcove, surrounded by the bones of his brethren.
Billy stood outside the coffeehouse the next day for half an hour, starting for the door and then stopping, pacing, staring through the window. He didn’t look at Raffi. He seemed to stare at the spot where he usually stood waiting for his drink. When he finally came inside he didn’t stop to order a drink, he just dropped ten dollars on the counter and took his place in front of Raffi, looking down.
After a moment, Raffi pushed a cappuccino forward. Billy stared at it for several seconds, then started nodding.
“That’s me, isn’t it, the skull under that hood? That’s me and I’m dead. You’re going to say it’s a flower or a sunrise or a turtle, but it’s me, a dead man.”
“I did not pour a design in your cappuccino today, brother,” said Raffi. “It’s just a white circle.”
Billy looked up but still avoided Raffi’s eyes and growled, “I told you, I’m not your damn brother,” and then lunged at the barista, reaching over the counter for his neck, only his arms didn’t move. His body didn’t move. Nothing moved.
Though rare, the mummified body of Brother Fossombrone has been known to change its position. The church’s official statement on this has always been that it is the result of pranksters, but it’s been happening for hundreds of years and no one has ever been caught nor confessed and no amount of security keeps it from happening. No one has ever seen the body move, but it is said that a change in the body’s position is always proceeded by a voice whispering the words found on a plaque near the entrance of the crypt: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
He watches people enter the chapel, their eyes wide as they look at all of the bones. The chapel is filled with bones, stacks and stacks of bones, rows and rows of skulls. He notices that when their eyes fall on him, their expressions change from fascination with the horrid, to apprehension, revulsion, and a touch of confusion. He isn’t bones, exactly. He is something more than a skeleton, but something far less than a body. When the people get close, he tries to speak, tries to move, tries to show them that he is alive… or if not alive, then something. But he doesn’t speak. He doesn’t move. In his mind he is shouting at them, begging for help, but the chapel remains silent beyond the soft murmuring of his visitors. The people wrinkle their noses and the children stay carefully behind the adults who take pictures reluctantly and then leave without looking back. Eventually, when the chapel has been empty for a long time and grown dark, Billy stops screaming.
Mike Ferguson is an American coffee professional and chief storyteller for Olam Specialty Coffee. Read more of Mike Ferguson's work on Sprudge, where this story was originally published, and our Olam Specialty Coffee Blog.