By Bob McCauley, ND
The sound and alarm of a timer ringing in a kitchen that has been otherwise completely silent for the last forty minutes is not unlike the one a soldier experiences when a shell goes off in the trench next to him on a front that has been quiet for days. If nothing else, they make one want to hurry to somewhere safe. The dough had risen and was ready for the ovens. Through the window, Mark watched a group of brothers working on one of the pickup trucks. Laughter came faintly from where they toiled. Tools were slapped into palms that reached out from beneath the chassis, however cutters were provided when a wrench or crowbar was asked for. Finally the man on his back came out from below and began chasing the others who disappeared behind the rectory.
The sun shone against the red face of cliffs and as it drew across the desert sky would soon steep in its light the community of buildings that were assembled at their foot.
Other than the dull hammer of the well pump far off, the kitchen was again still and silent. Sometimes a rabbit or other desert creature scampered through the pale sage bushes. Once an elderly monk came in for warm milk to settle his stomach. A tractor in a remote region of the monastery reached his ears. It was easy for one to believe that here was the quietest place on Earth.
In a while, bread lay steaming on racks. The brother assigned to cook evening dinner with him arrived and without a word between the two, vegetables, rice and cheese appeared on the counters. Every available utensil was taken from its hook and scabbard. Cookbooks were scrutinized as they labored over pots and cutting boards. Knives were handled with the skill of performers who wield them for a living. Here were the best chefs of the priory, although constant tasting left them without appetites, which is a hazard of their trade. Mark, the chief chef, was known by a nickname that told all his place in the community.
“Something smells good.” The Prior stood in the doorway of kitchen smiling. He tried to determine the smell, but couldn’t, and it was the policy of the chefs to offer no hints as to what was in their pots. His guesses were met with shrugs and poker faces, and these two were ready with knives for anyone who might think to peak under their lids.
“Mark,” the Prior called him aside. Mark wiped his hands on his apron as he walked over to him with a look that stated neither threats, authority, nor chumminess would open his lips. “We missed you at lauds this morning. Everything all right?”
“Sure.” The Prior stared into the kitchen as though someone there was signaling him.
“You seem to be missing more often.”
“Everything’s all right.”
“You sure? Maybe we should talk later.” After a moment, the Prior smiled: “What are we having?”
Mark grinned and returned to the kitchen.
During the meal, the Prior read an account of some pious life. The praise of every monk who is not allowed to speak at meals was heaped upon the cooks through the rudimentary language of the eyes. Others only grinned and seemed to unable to breath for having forks push food down their throats. Cheeks were puffed, jaws unable to chew anymore till they rested. Some of the guests who were staying with these monks speculated that the community had just come off a marathon fast, although none appeared emaciated nor seemed to have been made anemic by it. The cooks brought around deep bowls offering seconds until every clump and crumb was scrapped from them.
When the meal was over, the day’s Martyrology was read. It spoke of lives renounced and sacrificed with unblinking discipline to the dogmas of their faith. Mark sat listening to how medieval saints had been slain in countless ways for an abstract ideal. It seemed that having so much time on their hands left the executioners of that age with little to do but devise endless devices of human butcher. It suddenly made him wonder if his were the only ears working in the room. These fools had not died for the progress of science or medicine, or like the soldier who is slaughtered for the principles of living free or the city on a hill. They’d had their necks twisted or limbs torn from them for something not provable, hypothetical, abstract, never seen. Rumors and the wind had as much substance to them as what they believed in. And here was the irony of it: they were celebrated by bothers, men like himself who would no more follow their example than crawl miles on their knees to visit a shrine as many layman made a regular habit of doing.
Lately, he had formulated a hypothesis that he was the only man in the community who listened to anything other than the bell calling them to the next psalm to be sung in the chapel. He suspected that a cherished portion of his formative years were somehow being squandered on piety. Every creature that thinks speculates about its life as something other than what it is. For monks, it is the suspicion that they must be cheating themselves out of some bounty due them. Grapes would be fed to them at the end of painted nails, dollars stuffed into their pockets, if only they weren’t so busy listening for the next bell notifying them it was again time to bow and sing. Without any election he was aware of, the bell had installed itself long ago as autocrat of this place.
The priory proved beyond any doubt that the world was flat after all, for walking off it meant plunging over the edge into a secular abyss. It was an alien place removed from the rest of civilization, an island unto itself where life was centered around the whim of a bell. It was an institution without any steps or walls or marble pillars, although it was precisely as confining. When he joined the priory, he viewed every restriction as necessary discipline needed to become a monk. However, rebellion has a home in every heart and it now suggested to him that he view his years of submission and conformity as those spent by a fool.
When dinner was finished, everyone stood behind the benches, sang the final blessing then departed. Mark and a few others were clearing the tables when the Prior called him into the community room. The sun had dropped behind the cliffs and thrown a tarp-like shadow over the priory and most of the canyon. They stood and stared out the window at the rock garden whose various gray half-tones of afternoon light somehow personified monastic philosophy.
“It was a delicious meal,” the Prior said, adjusting the belt around his denim habit in a manner that concluded he’d undoubtedly been fattened by it. “The physician of the kitchen,” he smiled at Mark, which made him grin shyly. The two continued to stare and say nothing. Amongst monks, the favored method of transition between subjects, especially when the next may be difficult, is through the medium of silence. “We’re not going to loose one our best chefs, are we?” Mark made himself smile and said nothing. “Is there something you want to talk about? I know you’ve been having a tough time lately.” Mark pledged that every matter of his monastic life was in impeccable order. “I know there’s something. It’s obvious. We’ve all been there.” The Prior’s thick voice tried at once to be paternal, yet fraternal. He touched his long Greek beard. He was not Greek, but was descended from them and it made him run the priory in a manner of amiable, yet complete dictatorial control. He was short and wore sandals, even through the coldest winters. Someone once called him the Prior General and there were jokes and wordplay with it, not all of it to his face. But he did enjoy the title of General. At times it even caused his chest to jut forward. “Are you sure there’s nothing?”
Mark shrugged and looked at his shoes. “I’ve been here eight years now,” he finally admitted. “I’m nearly professed and I don’t see anything happening.”
“Like what? What did you expect to happen?”
“Anything. I can’t relate to hearing about these guys who died for this. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make those sacrifices. I wouldn’t want to. It’s not that I think they were stupid for doing what they did, I just don’t think I could follow them.”
“It doesn’t mean you can’t be a monk,” the Prior said. “We need you here, but– ”
“I don’t feel resentment toward anything here. I just don’t feel a part of things or like this is actually going somewhere.”
“You can say the same thing in any life you’re living, not just one like this that’s so . . . routine.”
“I guess I’m looking for some kind of end to the tunnel if you know what I mean.”
Someone called to the Prior from the rectory.
“I have to go. We’ll talk later. Vespers is in forty minutes,” he slapped Mark’s shoulder like a ball manager trying to encourage one of his players who’s in a slump. “See you there.”
Mark stood alone thinking of the myriad comparisons to the chances of that happening. The calculated figure was a fractional number with a decimal point followed by zeros and zeros and finally a one somewhere at the end of them.
As he walked through the dining room, amiable jeers came from the kitchen charging Mark and the Prior with collusion to get him out of dish duty. Novices and brothers accused him in the mild bantering carried on between monks, but he only smiled and called back that the scheme had worked flawlessly and that the Prior’s payment would be handled between them discretely when backs were turned.
The laughter blunted as he closed the door to the dining room, walked through the library and stepped outside. The box-shaped canyon was a study of twilight’s color and the ability of shadows to be infinitely stretched. The river was a thin scar against the land. Nothing moved in this scene. The clouds were brush-strokes. The green hills across the river appeared to have been dabbed on a paint board. It seemed he would tear through a canvas if he attempted to go over there. Throughout the canyon a pinkish hue fondled everything that wasn’t hiding from it. In the valley, violet did the same. One of the Surrealists might easily have designed this eerie crepuscule.
Mark walked toward the river. At the bottom of the hill, the pulse of the well pump was absent and all that could be heard was the river, which murmured like a hunched woman with beads. Further up, the cross of two rivers formed hissing rapids. Tall white trees, slim and pointed, nearly boughless, were carefully placed below the pine-spotted mountains above him.
He sat down on the riverbank. Behind him the chapel and other adobe buildings were sprawled at the base of the flat-sided cliffs, which served as a great theater-like backdrop for these structures. They were low and blended perfectly with the flesh-colored land, and all that betrayed their presence was chimney smoke and the chapel’s spire.
The sun kissed the rim of the precipice wall and was about to drop behind it. Mark’s face was brushed with its ever-reddening hue. He tossed sticks and sheaves of grass into the river feeling like a child who’s fought with his parents and run away from home. For a moment it allowed himself to forget the dilemma that was stalking him, but he was like a man confined to a wheelchair who is reminded of his condition every time he tries to stand. He did not consider his years at the priory a waste, but he felt himself being tugged, as though through a key hole, away from this life toward a secular one.
He remembered his first visit to the priory. He’d heard about it from a member of his church who’d praised its existence and seemed to imply that here was a paradise hidden from all but the select of humanity.
Mark drove the twisting dirt road to get there, which made daredevils of all who attempted it, threatening them at every turn that their grave waited below. Given the proximity it put one to death, it was impossible not to recall how fragile and precious life is after traveling it.
Upon arriving, he found the monastery empty, making him wonder if he’d been the victim of an elaborate gag, for no detail of this ghost priory had been overlooked. Ringing the bell next to the guesthouse produced no one. He began to speculate that he’d died and arrived at some afterlife ranch. The wind was the only thing that connected him with what he still believed was reality and assured him he had not driven to some alien world. Finally, as if by chance, he found another guest and upon approaching him, Mark feared more than anything that the man would walk past him and prove that he was invisible.
He was eventually introduced to the Guestmaster of the monastery who showed him to his room, which was constructed exclusively of mud, straw and wood. Its decor was a few sticks of furniture, a stove and a foam mattress. Comfort had been avoided, not overlooked. He unpacked, arranged his things in minutes then spent the balance of the afternoon wondering around the priory, which in its entirety was a sparse collection of amateur adobe buildings spread over a square mile. Life was scare in this desert place and seemed only obtainable at exorbitant prices. During his hours of hiking he had seen only two blue figures walking together somewhere far off. The interior of his room made him feel like the last human. It seemed that a visit to a monastery was more than anything an exercise in stillness and listening to blood move through one’s veins.
Dinner was a meager affair, what one might think to find on the plates of condemned men. It was taken in silence except for a voice that droned from a dark corner recounting the times and deeds of courageous martyrs. Apparently this monastic place produced oddities in men the way universities turn out thinkers. One monk ate with the characteristics of a nervous rabbit while another ravished his like a rancher who’d come from the range for his single meal of the day. An elderly monk with a white beard that ended somewhere on his chest inspected each morsel as though he feared poisoning. The portrait was of men every shape and size, some meticulous and groomed, others resembling hunters on the final day of their expeditions. It was a gathering of society’s renown eccentrics, which made Mark feel like a swan amongst ducks.
When the meal was over, he thought to ask if there would be a main course, but the final blessing informed him they’d just finished it.
He returned to his room, which he learned was called a cell and appropriately so, for it was every bit like those he’d seen in prison photos, only this one lacked bars. He began to suspect he’d mistakenly come to a penal institution and thus began to plot an escape. He stared at its walls feeling like a man who’s had the portion of the brain removed that makes him dangerous. Another bell rang for the evening prayer and, as though it made zombies of those under its sorcery, every room in the guest compound emptied of its addicts. If he would have been a criminal, he thought what a rare looting opportunity this was, for not a lock could be found on any door.
In a while, Mark was himself in the chapel, as though driven there by some ulterior force. He felt like one who, under hypnosis wakes and finds himself in a strange place standing on one foot. It, too, was constructed entirely of dried mud and wood as though to insist no superior technology existed.
A beam of incense ascended from a glowing ember, which was stoked from time to time by an appointed monk. The plume created flat patterns of smoke in the candlelight. The faces of a dozen men, arranged in a pattern of ceremony around the altar, shone feebly in the amber light of kerosene lanterns. Some were bent forward or leaned against walls, others hunched in robes, hidden in them. Several were mere hooded figures, their hands and face dark holes in their habits. There was an atmosphere of smoke and piety.
Darkness came swiftly to the community, as though it expected to catch these men oiling their shields instead of having them raised as they should be. Life in a canyon is spent exclusively in light or its absence.
A guitar appeared in the hands of a monk who announced a page number in a hymnbook then began to strum the instrument. Eyes strained in the pale yellowish lamp-light to comprehend any word written in the haggard book found under her stool. Necks craned in curious attitudes. The voices, hollow-sounding in the mud chapel, seemed to chant as much as sing. At the end of each psalm, every black shape stood and bowed at the pronouncement of a holy phrase. After they sat together for a time in silence, some yawning, others gazing about the dark chapel as though to wonder what they were doing there. Then the guitar started again as did chanting voices.
It was a spectacle from another era. Mark watched the silhouettes sit and stand and bow and sit and stand and bow in a ceremony invented for men who hadn’t learned the world is round or that the stars are not hung in crystal spheres. These rites might have applied in bygone times, but now had become like a cog trying to find a useful place amongst silicon chips. This two week retreat had become a study of a lost race of contemplatives. Serendipity, he thought, was having a little chuckle over what path fate had steered him. It all seemed a supreme waste of thought and muscle. He wondered if men here were still bled to cure them of ailments or if strangers were thrown into the river to determine if they were sorcerers. Perhaps the church hierarchy ought to be informed about what was going on here. He concluded that if he had indeed stumbled into some splinter church-cult, Rome should at the very least know about it. And it made him wonder once if he should fear for his life like the man who knew too much.
In the hours he’d spent here, he hadn’t found a single amenity from this century, neither electricity nor phone, television for computer, as though his trip down the dirt road had been one through a time hole that transported him to a fossil age.
As evening prayer continued, Mark fought an urge laugh at these droning chanters. It struggled to embarrass him before everyone in the room, which made him recall his youth when laughing in church was a sport amongst him and his pals.
A thought flirted with his mind that this rite he was witnessing was a farce, a mere production. It was a kind of theater these monks encouraged others to embrace as their creed. He thought this place must be a card-house, a grand sleight that would one day collapse with its kings and queens and aces strewn stupidly in every manner.
Conversion takes place when a person’s mind is concentrated on trivial matters and when he finds the notion that anything could ever change him to simply be preposterous. It usually happens so suddenly that one looks back to wonder how he could have ever embraced the silly isms he once did. Mark was like a science skeptic who’d been shown that the mix of the right elements produced the results demonstrated to be impossible on paper. Being drawn to this place was in every way analogous to the science of magnetic properties. And once he was there, he wanted nothing else in the universe but to stay.
By the time he had completed his two week visit, he’d asked permission to return for an extended period of time and when he did, he never left. It was as though one day he’d woke to find himself in a monk’s robe. A belt around his waist proved he was celibate, given to Him, and his hair was shorn in a fashion that declared he did care how the world looked upon him, for he was separate from it.
He sat by the river now feeling the story of his first visit was one recounted to him rather than his own. It had become a play with endless scenes, no climax nor finale. He knew it would only be a matter of time before he left the priory for good. Next to him a tree raised and shook its windy boughs in exclamation as though to demand to know his reasons. He did not know what had driven him here and he did not know what was whipping his back insisting he now leave. He felt his foot size too big for this shoe. One day this would all be remembered with children on his knees, as though it were a dream that he had once lived in a holy society.
The bell announced that evening prayer would begin in five minutes. Mark bothered to turn his head and sneer at it as he would at a man who was proposing a ludicrous scheme that would make him instantly rich, but that was his only acknowledgement of it.
Everything became still and silent with the absence of the day’s prodigal sun. Silence is not a gag strapped over mouths — that is tyranny. Rather, it is a mystery that reveals itself for an instant then slips again behind a mask. A gentle breeze slowly grew until it snatched leaves from branches, flung them into the aisle of moving water and made the long grass lay against the earth.
A person waits his entire life for death, knowing that it stalks him every moment, but it never comes till he relaxes and takes his mind off it, convinced that he is at last safe for the moment. This was the exact manner in which the military jet flew past, low between the canyon walls, at once there and gone, as though it meant to deliberately prove itself capable of such a feat. Its voice was a grim, unambiguous gust of sound, never anything more than a silver rushing stain on his memory. It somehow was a compendium of the modern world expressed in a mere moment.
These jets seldom flew through the canyon and were spoken of for days after when they did. They were as much a spectacular to the community as celestial events might have been to primitive cultures. Some had lived for decades at the monastery, frustrated at never having seen one while others witnessed them in their first days after arriving.
Mark felt stricken, for he was unable to move. He sat like someone who’s had the cloak of death cast over his head and narrowly escaped from under it. His expression was that of a man who’s seen a long-dead relative or one who’s standing after having been clubbed from behind. He felt he’d experienced something that he’s incapable of relating without sounding foolish, as though he was a victim of a prank or clever grift. Like one who’s had a vivid, full-color dream he began to question if it’d really happened.
The second bell informed everyone who was not in the chapel they were late for evening prayer. It woke Mark from his trance exactly as if would if he’d been meanly shaken. He was as astonished to find himself walking toward the chapel as a dead man would be to see his hand pass through something solid for the first time. Its edifice was a black shape raised against the coming night. The gossamer chant of his brethren, wavering in the wind, made him remember the early days when he was always late for prayer. He grinned to wonder about the little trouble he would have to answer to for being once again tardy.
The path looped around so he decided to cut through the tall grass, which grabbed and scratched at him, twisting its fingers around his trunk and at his throat. The notch of a branch limb grabbed his belt-knot as if trying to slow him. The struggle made him know he would not be leaving and it made him careful of his step through the brush. He felt like a child running home before it got too dark.
The song became a potent thing in the darkness. Leaden-hewn light spilled into the night through every colored window and stained the desert floor. He hastened as he took the crown of the hill, hurrying to get there before it was over.