Et Sequitur Magazine, Issue 3
Issue 3 (September 2022)
An Ordinary Tale of Extraordinary Desire
By Kiersten Gonzalez
The abbot’s eyes puff and wrinkles deepen as the bearded leader reads Gregory’s paperwork—an application, letters of recommendation.
“You were an accountant, Gregory?”
“Briefly.” He swallows and nods. Numbers, money. Imaginary, empty. A palpable moistness forms under his arms.
“And a teacher?”
“For a year.”
“Have you dated?”
“None of this has satisfied you?”
A long pause. “No.”
The abbot thumbs through the papers with precision.
“Were you committed to these efforts?”
Gregory fails to answer before the abbot speaks again.
“Why does the monastery appeal to you?”
His mother’s words resurface. Evicted? Again? Gregory, when will your life start?
“Nothing else has felt right.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just…” he fidgets his hands. “I’m waiting for this feeling. When it comes, I’ll know it’s the right choice.”
“But why here?”
Gregory looks out the window of the cramped office to the forest. A mystery lingers in the mist rising from it. And the whisper of leaves…like spilled secrets. For years, he had walked in the little city below—on a lunch break, avoiding work—to gaze at the monastery on the hill. The colored glass glinting in the sunshine, the enchanting harmony wafting down…he’d nearly drop the sticky, glowing screen in his hand, as if the world contained in it ceased to exist.
“There’s something about this place,” his voice quivers. And I don’t know what other option I have left. “The trial period is one week?”
“We call it a retreat.” The abbot lowers his gaze, staring over his glasses. “You have a fire in you, Gregory. I just don’t know what to make of it yet.”
He feels the abbot studying his body: his fidgeting, his heart pounding. His hesitations laid bare. Smiling nervously, he hands over his cellphone, his watch, and a bag of his old clothes. The fibers are familiar; they’re woven of his old life.
The pockets of his new habit run deep. His fingers search them as he walks along the hallways, anticipating something between the folds of fabric…something meaningful. But he feels nothing.
With the cathedral lights shut, golden light seeps in—like a giant jewelry box of velvet, gold, and vivid colors.
“Please, let me feel something here,” Gregory whispers. But the church is quiet, save for a brother’s whispered prayer and the moan of wooden doors.
He writes hurriedly in a journal, scratching words quickly—intensely—so they might become valuable. The jottings end in crumples, flung into the tiny wastepaper basket of a dark confessional.
In the breezy corridor, a monk of staggering height rests a stack of books on the ground, fumbling in his pockets.
Gregory pauses, and the monk looks at him.
“Would you like some?” The monk’s open palm gleams with two peppermint patties.
“Mint, with chocolate.”
Gregory ponders the distinction: chocolate sweet, indulgent; mint refreshing, like a clarifying agent. He looks up and down the hall, reaches toward the open hand of the young, friendly face, then retracts. What’s being exchanged, what does the monk want?
“You’re Brother Theo?”
The monk nods enthusiastically.
“Thank you.” He grasps the offering, waiting for a request. But Theo only smiles and walks outside.
Gregory follows, kicks the twisting short shrubs of a labyrinthine garden, and rips open the candy wrapper.
“In these mazes, there are no wrong turns. No dead ends,” Theo explains.
“Why’s that?” Gregory cannot discern the end of the path stretching before him. Bittersweet chocolate dissolves on his tongue, melting into tingling cream.
They begin to walk.
“We can’t understand life’s complexity,” Theo says. “Our minds—flawed—imagine grand designs. But we can only know what’s in front of us. There are no wrong steps, if we keep moving.”
“Do you believe that? No wrong decisions?”
Gregory’s new companion takes out another candy.
“Theo, do you ever miss the world?”
“Did you leave many people behind?”
Theo stops chewing. His thumb traces his ring finger.
“My wife passed. She was all I had.”
“I thought, what now? There couldn’t be any sweetness left in the world.” Theo nibbles at the chocolate shell, slowly, as if it could last a lifetime. “I thought my life was one big mistake.”
“A second purpose.”
They reach the center of the path and follow a new one outward.
“Did she like peppermint?” Gregory holds his breath waiting for the answer.
“It was her favorite.”
Gregory writes in his journal.
How can you discover life’s purpose, twice? How could a man fit two lives into one? If it weren’t for his kind eyes and the way he listens, I would shake him.
He crosses out the last sentence.
The first night is long, with distant coughs and strangers’ clouded voices seeping through the walls. In bed, Gregory imagines the moments he’s left behind, and wonders if this was a mistake. Glowing faces gathered around birthday candles, casual conversations on car rides, the pulse of music from a concert stage. The memories feel real.
The mind has a way of making things come alive, he writes through tears.
He swallows his cries so they don’t bleed through the walls. The room is stuffy, filled with the persistent stench of feet and incense. He reaches up and opens the window, its metal frame squeaking.
The forest leaves rush and hush, like a lullaby. Gregory’s muscles ease.
His tongue searches his teeth for a remnant of mint mixed with chocolate.
On his desk, a thick breviary has a gap in its center, a chunk of thin pages swirled like a wave, a faux leather cover draped like a blanket. Inside he keeps a shaving razor. While the others have long, wise beards, Gregory lies.
“A beard…it’s difficult for me. It might grow soon.”
In the morning, he shaves carefully, trying not to cut himself.
“You don’t like ham, Gregory?”
Black-spotted meat decorates the plate. Even the bread is crusty and green.
“Don’t have an appetite,” Gregory replies.
Theo nods toward the other monks staring at Gregory intently. The abbot doesn’t blink. “They’ll start to question your intentions, if you’re too picky.”
Gregory cuts around the spots, chewing carefully.
“The donations are usually fresher.”
“Do they include your silver-wrapped sweets?”
Theo raises a finger to smiling lips.
At night, Gregory tries to write. The words stretch, the letters lose shape.
If I’ve seemed more peaceful in this nowhere place, it’s only from restraint.
He rips the page out and folds it into an envelope, thinking of his family’s letters. Was honesty too callous a reply for sincere well wishes; too strange for friends to read, friends who could not understand his life here?
He removes and smooths the pages; they resist being forced back into the journal.
With limbs pulled close, he stares at the speckled midnight sky, the forest dark. Unfathomable.
Wind whips into the bedroom, billowing the linen curtain and fluttering wispy book pages. When the gust settles, the silence returns, but it’s soon interrupted.
At first distant, the sound crescendos nearer. A shriek, a howl.
“Just an animal,” he thinks. “An owl.”
He turns over to sleep but the screaming continues. It dips lower, sounding more like a man. He eases out of bed and peeks into the hall, but each door is shut, at rest. Gregory waits for a feeling, an urge. He feels nothing.
But the sound…familiar, like a dream, a memory. He believes thoughts are heard by God—creating a cosmic meeting place. Are prayers and thoughts, memories and dreams any less real than a forest, a mind, a monastery?
He slips on leather sandals.
The forest smells like green moss, hot vapor, and vanilla. Sticks and dead leaves rasp against his reluctant steps. The haunting sound bounces off trees, turning him in circles.
After a while, the wailing grows soft. He wonders if he only imagined it; his mind tired, his feet wet.
The woods release him and he finds the monastery. Light glows dimly on the walls from cheap, electric candles. He slips into bed but doesn’t sleep.
In the morning, he struggles to keep up with morning prayer. While the singing voices rise, his chanting drones, eyelids heavy.
Monks file out of the church; he begins to follow, brushing fingers along the pew’s faded finish, streaks of raw wood peeking through the mahogany stain. He imagines a heart—raw, exposed muscle. He stops, letting the monks continue to breakfast without him.
Through his glassy stare, the images come alive—chests rising, heads tilting. With another blink, they’re still again, trapped in their poses. His excitement fades to light-headedness, like he’s floating, while his body sinks to the ground.
He imagines a woman calling his name. A sweet sigh, a beautiful face. He reaches to grasp her, finally feeling something. Her hair smooth, like chocolate, her gentle voice refreshing, like mint…
“Gregory, what’s the matter?”
He wakes on the church’s cold tile, staring into Theo’s frantic eyes. The monk holds out a chocolate bar, like a smelling salt.
Gregory wonders from where these pervasive sweets materialize, and takes a bite of the reviving sugar.
“I’m leaving.” He says it like a test, letting the words sit on his lips, waiting for their effect.
“Don’t do that.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“You’ve barely given us a chance.”
“Chances…temporary circumstances…that’s what I’m good at.”
Theo eases a hand behind Gregory’s back and pulls him into a sitting position. “You’re agitated.”
“There’s nothing for me here.” He falls into a comfortable thought: Surely, there are still other possibilities… “I have faith. Why don’t I feel anything?”
“My wife used to say, sometimes you just need a strong talk with yourself.”
“Did you believe her?”
”I still do.”
Gregory pulls away, head spinning as he stands. “That’s good for you. But I can’t.”
There’s one computer in the monastery—but no internet—and one telephone in the kitchen, with a long spiral of tangled wire.
The phone rings as Gregory passes. He glances around the empty hall, and answers.
“Do you want to know? How it all ends?”
“Who is this?” Blood rushes, clouding his hearing.
Gregory hangs up; his shaking hands linger on the receiver.
Night falls. A laugh resounds from the forest, echoing over hazy fog into Gregory’s room.
Startled awake, he stiffens on the thin mattress and covers his head. The forest continues snickering, prodding. He came to the monastery, enchanted by the woods. And now—maybe it was calling to him.
Throwing the bed sheet, he slips on his habit. In the hall, he waits at Theo’s door, ready to knock.
He turns away, lowering his fist.
In the haunting woods, he follows the laughter. It almost sounds despairing. He meanders until he breaks through the trees, tipping on the edge of the mountain. The ground slopes sharply toward the city. Glittering lights abound, as if he wasn’t alone, as if each person below was listening with him to the night’s sounds. His grip eases, his heart slows.
Fingertips brush the back of his neck.
He gropes blindly behind him, grasping flesh, turning to find an older man, a familiar face worn with age. The eyes, bloodshot and teary, blaze with a fire he’s seen in the mirror more times than he can count.
“You’re so young…so thin,” the man says.
Gregory stares, slowly releasing the soft, fragile hand. “You can’t be—me?”
His phantasmic double nods.
“Which of us is real?”
“We are both real. Both dreaming, perhaps.”
Gregory’s mind reels. Are the woods a meeting place, a collision of thoughts across time? He shivers, reality too complex to understand.
“If that’s true…tell me.”
“How it ends.”
A feeble smile crosses the man’s face. “I sit, empty, grasping a nurse’s hand while my mind slips to this forest I once knew. To a young, burning heart never fulfilled by anything. I search memories for the details I must have missed, the purpose I passed along the way—or never saw.”
Gregory’s chest sinks. “You never found it?”
“I left this place. I met a woman and we married. But I never really chose her. I felt nothing, and wonder what might’ve happened if I’d stayed.”
“You weren’t happy,” Gregory whispers.
“I grew distant. I imagined there was something grander I overlooked. We divorced. I approach my end alone. Hearing coughs and stranger’s voices through thin walls.”
Gregory tears clumps of grass around him. Sweat drips down his forehead. He pictures a beautiful woman, as if she’s real. Maybe a memory from his older self, coalescing in this mysterious collision of minds.
“I thought there were no wrong choices in life.” He bites his lip, imagining Theo and the twisting garden path. “Leaving, staying—can both be wrong?”
The man grabs Gregory’s collar, shaking him. Not laughing—never laughing—but sobbing.
“You should have decided. Why couldn’t you decide? A life is not what happens to you. Life is what you choose.”
Gregory wakes in his creaky bed with a dream—a memory—still fresh.
The smell of incense sneaks under the door, but the monks won’t be looking for him. They think he’s leaving. Even Theo didn’t knock, like every other morning.
He stays in bed, thinking. In the corner, his sandals are soiled with dirt and broken blades of grass.
Through the open window, wind rushes through the forest as if speaking. It stops and starts again. Waiting. Listening.
Gregory dons his robe. In the hall, monks file out of the church to breakfast. He swims through their double-takes and clutches the abbot’s shoulder.
“I’d like to stay.” An extraordinary feeling swells in his chest.
“Are you sure?”
The abbot turns toward the tall window and stares with Gregory, past the labyrinth, to the forest.
“I’ve... faced myself here. Last night, I walked into the woods, uncertain. But feelings... they’re like the wind.” Leaves dance across the garden. “Coming and going. But I feel something when I take a step.” Gregory inhales deeply. “I’ve been waiting for life to start, so I can choose. But I know now, choices are the beginning.”
“Wisdom comes. The path is set right.” The abbot places a hand, strong and large, on Gregory’s shoulder. With the other, he gestures to the cafeteria.
Down the hall, Theo watches. When Gregory smiles, Theo rushes toward him.
In the pockets of his habit, between twisted folds of fabric, Gregory grasps a cold, smooth object.
After breakfast, Gregory slips into the confessional and throws the razor in the trash, grasping, instead, a glossy wrapper of mint and chocolate.
Share this story on Twitter
© Copyright Et Sequitur Magazine