The monk could not find his soul.
He rose, early in the morning, to pray to the saints for wisdom and to meditate upon the potent symbols of resurrection carried across generations for two thousand years. Through this process, he understood many things: why there is suffering, and how to heal it; why there is evil, and how to banish it. Demons did not set foot upon the same continent as the monk, for fear that he would see them.
But for all his wisdom, he could not find his soul.
When the bell rang he slipped out of his cell and joined his brothers in brown robes and entered the chapel beneath the spire, where they sang a verse from the sacred text over and over, new harmony emerging with each repetition and echoing around the chapel until a great road of sound filled them with the holy words melting together until it became the voice of God saying his own name.
When the bell rang again the words ceased and the spirit lifted and they walked, silently, through echoes thick as cobwebs into the kitchen. The monk ate from a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon, and craved nothing. He drank from a wooden cup and asked for nothing. The food made him warm and the water made him cold, but nothing touched his soul.
He spent the day doing chores: scrubbing the stairways and tending the gardens , drying the dishes and dusting the statues of the saints he prayed to with a cloth that was always washed in holy water. From this work he knew his every muscle, and every fragment of bone: when he was hard at work and his mind was quiet he could feel the blood vessels coursing through his veins like jellyfish floating in the ocean. When he rested, between tasks, he sensed the way his body was a combination of billions of smaller organisms that ate what he ate and hurt when he hurt, and that neither his body nor his mind were one unitary thing – and that neither was truly his. He had expected that underneath all this he would find his soul, but he had not.
When the evening bell rang he came to the chapel again and listened to a reading from the holy scripture: listened to the parables and prophecies that revealed the plan of God. He listened to stories of war and fire and persecution, and of saints and martyrs and miracles, and of the promise of eternal salvation that comes to those who let the love of God – which is the only real thing in this fallen world – into their hearts.
Then he ate dinner in silence.
Sometimes, at night, he mortified his flesh with a short and spiky whip. It was discouraged but sometimes he did, to know the extremes of the body that were not asked of him but that had been asked of agents of salvation. Other times, he meditated upon the face of the mother of God, and contemplated her smile and her tears.
Sometimes, he drew upon all his prowess, and searched for his soul in vain.
When years had gone by and his hair was turning grey and he had advanced no further from his spiritual peak he turned away from his brothers as they stepped into the chapel to sing the name of God, and walked to the monastery’s stone door. He left his robe of brown upon the threshold and walked into the world. He saw at once that it was a wounded place, a fly trap covered in honey. He walked for three days and three nights, cars passing him, trucks flashing their lights at him, until he came to the city. It was as he remembered it, from long ago, and it was as though his sharp and bloody dreams had been lying on the sidewalk waiting for him to return and wear them again. He remembered, vaguely, that he had wanted to be a musician, and a scholar, and a soldier.
He left his old dreams upon the sidewalk and walked until he saw a large hotel. He walked in and sat at the bar and let unsanctified alcohol pass his lips for the first time since he had slammed the door of his mother’s house and driven off with his guitar and a change of clothes. The bartender did not ask him to pay for his drink, because the bartender did not feel the pain of his divorce when he stood near the monk. He believed that bartending was a calling, not a job, and therefore he would not ask a holy man to pay, no matter what clothes he wore.
The monk drank red wine, and white wine, and wine the color of rose petals. He drank until at last the moon rose and the wind was cold. And he remembered the taste of alcohol and felt again the joys it brought.
He stood, then, and walked from the bar on legs unsteady. The bartender asked if he had a place to sleep, but the monk shook his head for he was not going to sleep. He walked across dark alleys and stinking by-ways until a pair of hands lunged at him from the shadows.
He was bruised before he knew it, his nose bleeding, and it had been a very long time since he had been struck by any man’s hand. But his body was used to hard labor and the mortification of the flesh, and his muscles began to remember what it was to roll with a punch, to clench into a fist, to strike, and hit, and batter and feel bones crunch and blood pour and be all powerful, another man lying at mercy, begging you the way you ask a wrathful god to stop. There had been two of them, the monk realized, in that alley, and one lay at his feet and the other had run away, and there was a wound now, from a knife, in his side. It was not deep.
The monk kept walking, stumbling often, back towards the bright lights of the city, and when he heard singing he turned and walked towards the tavern where music was played. He was bruised and bloody now, and one of the bouncers moved to stop him, but the monk held up his hand and the other bouncer – who wore a cross and rosaries around his neck – stepped in to let him pass. Even wounded so there was the air of God about him, for those who could see.
He walked into the tavern and it was nearly morning and last call was being filled, the musicians on stage ending their last set. He sat away from the stage, in shadow, and closed his eyes and let the music have its way. The wine, the fight, and the music together taking his body back to a time long before he had become holy. It was the music, he realized, that especially moved him. Thinking back, now, on a life he had largely forgotten, this did not surprise him.
And now, sitting next to him, looking at his tired and drunk and bloody body with its foot tapping and its fingers in position for a C chord, was his soul.
“Ah,” said the monk, surprised that his soul looked so young. That it looked like it had just when he’d left it, probably in a studio apartment with a mattress on the floor and a girl with slender legs and hips asleep.
“Ah,” said the monk’s soul. And there was no joy in it.
The monk spoke slowly. His speech was slurred. His wound burned. “I had thought you would come to heaven with me.”
His soul shook his head.
The monk asked, “Do you know what happened to her?”
His soul shook his head.
The monk said “I sing every day. Music such as is not of this earth.”
His soul shook his head. His music had always been of earth. His soul pointed at the bartender, who had long black hair and dark tan skin and wore a low cut shirt. The monk’s intoxicated head swooned and his aching muscles clenched and his soul smiled.
But the monk did not smile. “Allelujah,” he said.
His soul frowned.
“Allelujah,” he said again, and his soul shook his head.
“Allelujah,” said the monk. “I would be saved, even from my own folly. Allelujah.” And his soul wept.
The monk’s head fell on the table as he collapsed. An ambulance was called. He was taken to the hospital, and named “John Doe.” He was treated, and smiled, and rarely spoke. The other patients in his room slept deeply, and the nurses brought him gifts, and the doctors would look in his room for no reason, and find themselves at peace.
After three days and three nights he left the hospital and returned to the monastery, where he was given new robes without question and returned to his cleaning and his singing. He read the lives of the saints, and no longer mortified his flesh. Occasionally he thought of his soul, which would never leave the bar, surrounded by wine and music and women, and he said “allelujah” that he had been given the grace to leave it behind and be simple and filled with the name of God.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
Other stories in this series include:
- Destroy the Rich, by Daniel Roche
- A Moment of Weakness, by Olga Zillerbourg
- We Are All Wearing Jackets, by Ben Black
- Dandelions, by Nona Caspers
- What would you have done?, by Gabriel L. Bellman
- The Black Metal Barelled BB Gun, by W. Ross Ayers
- Re: Sugar, by Scott Lambridis
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