Become a Fan
The Wife and the Monk
By Michael T. Corrigan
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
A grieving man makes a bargain with a God he doesn't believe in to bring back a lost lover.
The Wife and the Monk
Leah had felt nothing after the initial headache, except a sense of drifting on a black sea, but she heard distant voices, some urgent and frightened, and a man asking when the harvest team would show. She heard another man sobbing and murmuring, “Please God.” Leah tried to open her eyes and speak. Then the darkness parted and she saw a field washed in reddish-golden light, and in the distance, exotic animals: lions, tigers, zebras, and gazelle. She saw a lake and dolphins leap clear of the bright waters. Leah wanted to ask why dolphins were swimming in a fresh water lake, or in any inland lake. Then she saw her two favorite dogs running toward her.
“My God,” Leah said. “Red Dog and Blue.”
Leah knew something was wrong, for if this was a dream, it was intensely vivid. The two dogs had been dead for decades. Then she saw the large, gray heavy-boned horse ambling toward her: Chuck was the name of the animal she had ridden as a little girl. Chuck would stand by a fence so Leah could mount him, and they would walk through open fields, often playing games with imaginary riders and horses.
Leah looked at the beautiful field. “I get it. So when do the dead relatives show up?”
Even as she spoke, Leah saw them: her parents, her favorite aunt and bow-legged uncle, her first boyfriend who died of a rare blood infection when she was in college.
Suddenly, the bright pale sky grew darker, the golden light faded, and other voices filled the air. They seemed unnaturally loud. Leah sat up and saw a nurse staring at her, the young face in shock. A round-faced heavy-set bald man in overalls was standing near the bed, tears in his eyes.
“Praise Jesus,” he said in a loud, grating voice.
“It’s a miracle,” the nurse said. She called for a doctor who came back into the bright intensive care room. Leah lay back and felt the thick tube sliding from her mouth but she couldn’t speak.
“I don’t understand this,” the doctor said. “The aneurysm bled out and destroyed her brain stem. I have her brain scan. Her coma score was four. That means—”
“Maybe God intervened,” the nurse said.
“The donor harvest team is here,” he said, staring at Leah, an attractive young-looking sixty year-old-female. “Good thing they’re late.”
The doctor studied Leah’s pale smooth face. Her blue eyes were clear and alert. “Can you speak? What’s your name? Where do you live?”
Leah wanted to tell them her name and that she lived in Idaho. She pressed her tongue against her front teeth and whispered, “Leah.”
“I can’t believe this.” The doctor gazed at Leah. “Welcome back,” he finally said.
Leah wanted to ask who the heavy-set man was but then she knew.
“Something is wrong,” she thought to herself.
When Leah left the hospital the next day, the papers carried the article about her amazing recovery after being pronounced brain dead, and how she woke up moments before the donor team arrived to harvest her organs. The cerebral hemorrhage that nearly killed her had suddenly sealed itself. She was back with her husband and her two college-age children, Lucy and Jared, who had come home expecting a death. She vaguely remembered seeing another man, middle-aged, thin, standing in the hospital parking lot, a solitary man who seemed familiar, but then the waiting car took Leah back home. Her normal life resumed.
Learning to live again, she felt like a patient recovering from a stroke. The distant past was clear: her animals, her parents, her high school, her old boyfriends, but the recent past was like a misty twilight where figures appeared and then vanished. Sometimes she asked questions and received no answers but only averted looks. Her job as a loan officer in a bank came back to her. She quickly recognized the world of numbers and percents as old familiar friends. Lucy and Jared, both their early thirties, took her to lunch and told her about growing up in rural Idaho. Leah recognized them but remembered them better as younger children, not adults. They were certainly relieved but also slightly unnerved that she had survived.
“Maybe Jesus wasn’t ready for you,” Jared said.
“Or it was one of those strange medical occurrences that we can’t explain,” Lucy said.
“I wish I remembered recent events more clearly.”
“I can catch you up on any details,” her daughter said.
“But now you have to get used to familiar surroundings,” Jared insisted. “Jog your memory of the home where you lived. You need stability.”
Leah looked at Jared. “I remember my parents and their very poor farm. I remember the two of you sitting on a horse in front of me. You both were about two and five. I remember Lucy at about eight months walking around me, holding my little finger. But the months before I collapsed are a blur.”
Her husband took her on a tour of the old house and the grounds, and he seemed like an old familiar friend. They made love but mechanically. She knew Lester was a well-meaning good person but sometimes took over conversations, talked loudly on the telephone when she was trying to sleep, and often ignored her suggestions about where to eat or what to do. Lester did not have any magic. Leah could not imagine marrying him, even when younger. There was also a phantom lover who appeared to her in dreams, tall, thin, face blurred, but with slender fingers and strong hands. At times she wanted to ask what had happened in the last five years that were lost. Was there a secret lover, somewhere? Or a public one? Her closest friend seemed to be a nun who received one of her loans, and Leah couldn’t ask her about imagined past lovers. A next door neighbor, an elderly, partially blind woman named Mabel, would not have many answers.
One afternoon, Leah did laundry and found some men’s underwear in the basket that didn’t look like Lester’s boxer shorts. Leah smelled them and suddenly had a vision of running naked with a naked man through a field of golden poppies. There was a river in the distance. She was still frolicking with her phantom lover when Lucy called her from England where she had just taken a new teaching job, After a bit of small talk, Leah got the nerve to ask if there was someone else in her life, Lucy didn’t seem surprised.
“I often wondered if you had another man. I know dad can be a pain in the ass, sometimes. But I never had any proof. Did you?”
“I don’t remember any,” Leah said.
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. Why did you wonder if I had another man?”
“Just before your cerebral incident, you seemed so happy,” Lucy said.
After a pause, Leah said, “Don’t tell your brother.”
Her miraculous recovery happened in September, and the fall was full of warm sun and cold night temperatures and bright fall colors. At Christmas time, Leah and Lester went to a convent that featured bread baked by nuns and wine sold by visiting Trappist monks from Utah. The monks were good wine makers, and even produced a local Riesling. One could also buy the best wines from California and even France. They paid a small sum and enjoyed an afternoon of wine tasting in the large but bland hall. The monks were dressed in dark robes and white hoods; a middle-aged but younger looking monk with unusually long hair served the customers. The monk stared at them as they entered the brightly lit room with other visitors. He seemed distracted but held up a bottle of red wine.
“Behold, the nectar of the gods.” He looked at Leah. “You are an Idaho native, so you will relish our own Riesling,” the monk said, regarding her with an intensity that made Leah uncomfortable. “This is made from sun-washed Idaho grapes. Nurtured in Idaho soil. Forget the homely potato, for here we have a noble wine.”
Leah was surprised to hear so much speech from a monk dedicated to silence.
“I do like wine and I am a native of Idaho,” Leah said. “Do I look like an Idaho native?”
“Idaho native, born and bred.”
“True. And you?”
“California, originally. I prefer growing grapes and selling wine to raising the monastery’s cattle. Ironic, since we’re forced by the order to abstain from meat.” The monk winked at Leah. “I love to drink and I’m a secret carnivore.”
“The Trappists can drink?”
“Alcohol is not forbidden, praise Saint Benedict.”
Leah smiled at the charming monk. At the end of the hall, Lester was entertaining other visitors with one of his over familiar stories about castrating sheep. Leah waved to one of the nuns she knew—Sister Mary—and then studied the cheerful talkative monk. He had a curved nose, close-set blue eyes, a small mouth and a slightly gaunt look. She would have said he had the face of a visionary painter they discussed in a humanities class. The face seemed familiar and unfamiliar, and he seemed to have an almost conspiratorial look.
“What wine would you suggest Mr.—?”
“Brother Michaels. Leah, you will like this wine, but you also may want champagne for Christmas and Easter guests. We also have a cheaper Merlot that Lester can certainly guzzle…I mean, enjoy.”
“You know my name. Do I know you?
The monk blushed. An older monk came over to the counter. He was a portly man with stern eyes. “Is there a problem here, Brother Michaels?”
“No problem, Brother John,” the monk said. He looked at Leah. “Everyone knows you. You are Leah Brown and your husband is Lester Brown, the county commissioner.”
“Yes, that’s true . I know one of the nuns, here.”
“Correct. Here are some suggestions.”
Leah agreed to his suggestions and watched as Brother Michael left to get her bottles. Lester finished his story: “I mean, you have to get their minds off ass and onto grass.”
The light inside the large hall was pleasant, and Leah wondered what the vineyards looked like. When Brother Michaels returned, she noticed that his expression carried a look of sadness…perhaps a nervous sadness.
“If you decide to visit us again, perhaps I can take you on a tour of the vineyards,” he said. “I’m also growing a sculpted garden, modeled on the Kylemore Abbey garden in Ireland’s Connemara County.”
“‘Kylemore’ means ‘big wood.’”
“The garden sounds lovely,” Leah said. “I love flowers.”
“I know. I mean, I imagine you do,” he added. “All the Kylemore nuns are growing old with no young ones to take their place. Do you think religious orders are dying?”
“I wouldn’t know. My office gave a loan to the nuns to run this place, and they are elderly, but are religious orders actually dying? You joined.”
“I did.” He lowered his eyes. “I’m a novice monk in training. Three years before final vows. Then I have a life of obedience, prayer, silence, vegetables when not fasting, and dull men in robes.” After a pause, he said, “A bargain is a bargain.”
“We’re Lutherans,” Leah said.
“I mean, I remember that Martin Luther had a point,” the monk quickly said. “He had the guts to question the Catholic Church of his time.”
Brother John suddenly appeared. “I can ring that up,” he said. He made quick hand signals to Brother Michaels and pointed toward an elderly couple at the end of the counter.
“Of course,” the monk said, his eyes lingering on Leah’s face.
“It’s been a delightful afternoon,” Leah said, holding out her hand. Brother Michaels held it for a long time, meeting her eyes. Then he saw the pack of cigarettes in her shirt pocket.
“You must quit smoking,” he said.
“Brother Michaels?” There was an angry tone in the older monk’s voice. “The other customers?”
“Of course,” Brother Michaels said. “Say hello to your children.” He moved down the counter. Lester suddenly appeared at Leah’s side. “You ready to go?”
Leah made a private note to read about the Trappists and was still watching Brother Michaels serving other customers, his face partially obscured by the hood, when Lester loudly informed her that he planned to see some friends on the way home.
“John and Alice bore you,” Lester bellowed, “but I think we owe them a visit, and maybe we can have dinner. They may be getting a divorce, you know.”
Leah looked at her husband’s round, moist face. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “You said something?”
As they left the convent, they saw Brother Michaels in the parking lot with a tall man dressed in a suit. The man seemed to be admonishing Brother Michaels, who looked up and saw her. He gave her a little salute as she walked to the snow-covered car with Lester.
At work the following week, she questioned Sister Mary about the monks when she came in to pay on their convent loan.
“We’re pretty much separate except for the Christmas and Easter holidays. The monks are lovely people, aren’t they? Dedicated.”
“What do you know about Brother Michaels?”
Sister Mary, her face wrinkled, was puzzled. “I don’t know them well by name.”
“He waited on me and seemed very friendly.”
“Oh yes,” Sister Mary said. “He’s always joking. I heard that he plays guitar and sings when the other monks are maintaining verbal silence. Of course, singing isn’t talking. They eventually discover if they have a true calling.”
“Where is the vineyard?”
“Not far from the convent.”
“And the garden?”
“I don’t know about a garden,” Sister Mary said.
Christmas was pleasant with her visiting children and Lester, though predictable, didn’t annoy her with his loud voice and repeated stories. The weather was cold, the roads icy, but it was a season she loved with the lights and the tree, with the presents and the midnight church services she attended with her children. While sitting in the pew, she wondered briefly what prayers Brother Michaels was saying with his fellow monks. She remembered his youthful looking, sinewy hands. Who was the man in the suit? What “bargain” was Brother Michaels talking about? She had looked up the Trappist order on the internet, and also searched for photos of the Kylemore Abbey’s artistically structured but functional garden. As the service concluded, Leah knew she would visit the convent in the spring.
During Easter week, Lester surprised Leah when he agreed to an afternoon of wine tasting, though they had enough wine at home. “I’d like to see how Alice is doing since their separation,” he said. “I can drop you off at the nunnery.”
“That would be fine,” Leah said.
And then Leah stood in front of the convent and the large hall where the priests and nuns sold their wares to support themselves. Brother Michaels was not behind the counter. Leah wondered why she should care. She had a quick cigarette outside and then saw the distant vineyards, looking so symmetrical and beautiful in the soft April light. A monk passed.
“Excuse me, do you know where Brother Michaels is? He had some excellent suggestions for wine when we were here last Christmas.”
The monk stopped. “Ah yes, Brother Michaels.” He met her eyes and smiled. “He’s taking a few tourists on a tour of the vineyards. He does know his plants and grapes.”
“I guess every new member brings something to the table.”
“Yes, they do.”
The monk walked on. Leah finished her cigarette and walked toward the vineyards. She passed the tall man in a suit and remembered him from the parking lot.
“This is ridiculous,” Leah thought to herself. “Why do I need to see this cheerful, yet sad monk?”
But she felt a certain lift in the heart when she saw Brother Michaels, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with a Levi jacket. He was pointing to the vineyard. Something about him suggested a skilled actor giving a big speech. He stopped in midsentence when he saw her. The sun was bright on her blonde hair. Leah didn’t think he would blush again, but he did.
“Welcome, Mrs. Brown. I was just explaining that monks’ robes aren’t conducive to the dirty work that needs to be done to protect and nurture flowers, plants, and rows of young grapes. You’ve been a farmer so you understand. I hope we have a hot summer.” He looked at the small group. “Do robes make the monk?”
Everyone laughed and Leah joined them as they walked through the rows and listened to Brother Michaels’s spiel. At one point, she took out a cigarette but when he glared at her, she put it away. “Young grapes are sensitive to poisonous nicotine,” he lectured.
As they walked on, a young woman who worked at the winery took over. Brother Michaels addressed the group.
“Ms. Hawthorne knows more about the wine-making process than I do, but I’ll meet you at the hall to help you select—after a taste, of course—the wine that’s begging to be on your table.”
Brother Michaels’ strong but lyrical voice ceased. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves. Leah stood in the brown narrow path between the rows. She was uncertain whether or not to follow the group when Brother Michaels nodded to her.
“There’s an irrigation canal near here that we use. Maybe you have an alternative suggestion in case there’s a drought.” He smiled. “Or maybe you want to join the others?”
Leah looked at the departing group and said, “I can walk with you.”
“We have to be careful,” Brother Michaels said with mock drama. “We may cause a scandal.”
“I’m a grown-up,” Leah told him.
At that moment, she imagined Lester sitting across from a sobbing Alice, having coffee and speaking to her in his softer voice. He would vow eternal friendship and hold her veined hand.
“It’s nice to see you, again, Brother Michaels.”
“Nice to see you.”
They walked along the irrigation canal, but Leah could not make alternative suggestions.
“Moving pipe for irrigation wouldn’t work well, here. This canal and steady rain is what you need. I’m sure Ms. Hawthorne knows that.”
“I think she does.”
They stopped at a bench and sat down. Leah took out a cigarette and lit it. “Sorry,” she said. “I need a smoke.”
“We all have addictions. It almost…it could kill you,” he warned.
“I know.” She looked at the water moving in the narrow channel. “I don’t know why I’m here, but you do interest me. I know I interest you. Why?”
“You’re an attractive woman.”
“Thank you. I don’t usually hear that from priests, pastors or Trappist wine-makers.”
“I know. It’s awkward.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Really? I have the time. You are unique,” she said. “California, you say?”
He proceeded to tell her about his life in San Francisco and Los Angeles, about writing screenplays and plays, about working theatre in New York, and about teaching. Leah enjoyed the rhythms of his voice and the feel of sunlight on her face and shoulders.
“I think what I really am is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.”
“A writer and not a monk?”
“I could do both, but I don’t think I’m meant to be a Trappist.”
“But you joined the order.”
“Yes. I had to keep a promise.”
Leah could see the uncertainty in his face. “I’m not sure.” He suddenly laughed. “I was something of an atheist. I guess the proper term is secular humanist. I still am, to some extent, but I made a bargain.”
“Yes. A bargain with the Chief. If he, she, or it exists.”
“I never thought I’d hear that from a monk.”
“Neither did I.” He looked at her and Leah felt a sudden warmth that disturbed her. The canal water made a comforting flowing sound. His eyes held hers for a long time.
“You never have doubts, do you?”
“Sometimes. But I believe Jesus is my savior.”
“I know. I find that charming, actually. I’m not convinced Jesus Christ meant to start a Christian church.” He stood up. “We should head back. They’ll be looking for me. I’m not supposed to get too friendly with the customers. We are celibate, you know.”
“I know. Lately, so am I.”
Brother Michaels ignored her remark. They saw the group returning with Ms. Hawthorne.
“I can slip in with them.” They walked on. “Tell me, what was the bargain?”
Brother Michaels looked at her and Leah saw the sadness coming back. “I was in love with a beautiful woman who had left her husband. After a wonderful time, together, I saw she was dying. At the hospital, I gave prayer a shot and told a God I didn’t believe in that if she survived, I’d do anything, even become a monk living on bread and water for the rest of my life.”
“And it happened. She survived. A voice or maybe an angel told me she would live but I could never see her or she would die again, and then I was knocking on the door of the Utah Monastery. I picked the Trappists because I admired the work of Thomas Merton.”
Leah stopped, staring at his face. “That’s a touching…and amazing story. Why can’t you see your beloved anymore?”
“Punishment for my non belief,” he said. “And yet I do see her and that makes it worse. Look, Leah, you better join the others. I’ll meet you inside.”
“I need to know more. What was her name?”
“No need to know that. It all happened in a parallel universe.”
She could see a sudden panic in his eyes. Brother Michaels walked quickly across a bridge and after following him with her eyes, Leah joined the group walking toward the hall. She tried to process all the information. Was this monk a great story teller, did he have some divine connection, or was he living in a fantasy?
Inside the hall, the guests made selections. Leah said hello to Sister Mary and furtively watched as Brother Michaels, now in robes, waited on customers, his big theatrical voice filling the room. She waited, looking out the window for Lester whom she suspected would be late. Finally, she went to the counter and bought four bottles of Riesling.
“Excellent choice,” Brother Michaels said.
As she took the box of wine, she looked into his face. “When will I see you again? Next Christmas?”
“That’s a good time.”
“Maybe I’ll do a retreat at the monastery,” Leah said.
“Excellent suggestion. Maybe I’ll have a book done by then.”
“I’ll read it. Do you have an address for letters…besides the monastery?”
Another customer asked a question and Brother Michaels moved down the line. Occasionally, their eyes met. Leah finally walked outside and stood on the front steps. It began to rain heavily, and Lester was not in the parking lot. Blowing sheets of rain washed over the parked cars. Then Leah saw the man in the suit opening an umbrella. He stopped in front of the hall. “You’re waiting for someone?”
“Yes. My husband.” The tall man held the umbrella over her. “Are you a Trappist?”
“No, I’m a lay person, but I run the monastery in Utah until a new abbot arrives. Would you like to wait inside?”
Leah wanted to ask about Brother Michaels but didn’t. “You have retreats for women?”
“Yes.” He held out his hand. “Brett Anderson.”
The rain beat down on the parking lot as people ran for their cars. Inside the hall, customers had left and the monks were cleaning up. Leah could feel Brother Michaels watching her. She became aware of Brett Anderson speaking: “Many come to us to get away from the world, Mrs. Brown. A spiritual retreat is essential for mental health.”
“Do some become monks?”
Brett Anderson laughed. “Well, now and then, someone decides they want to stay and cultivate a life of meditation in Christ.” He looked into her eyes. “Is that what you want, Mrs. Brown? You might talk to the good sisters here.”
“Just a thought, Mr. Anderson.”
She dialed Alice’s number on a cell phone and heard her high-pitched, somewhat whiny voice. “Yes? Who is it?”
“Alice, could you put my husband on, please? I need a ride and he’s late.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Leah. Just a moment. Lester?”
Leah suddenly heard Lester’s voice. “We forgot the time, honey. It’s been so hard for Alice and all.”
“I can imagine. Come get me—now.”
After some off-phone murmuring, Lester came back on the line. “I’ll be right there, dear.”
Leah was startled when Brother Michaels took her cell phone, speaking in a disguised gruff voice: “Hey, big boy, you better come and get your woman or the nuns will get her.”
“What? Who’s this?”
“Or better yet, she may become the first female Trappist. Won’t us monks love that.”
Stunned, Leah wasn’t sure whether or laugh or be offended. She could hear Lester’s shocked voice on the other end of the line as Brother Michaels began singing the Beatle song, “You’re Gonna Lose that Girl.” He had finished the first verse when Brett interrupted.
“Brother Michaels, I’m enjoying the concert but you need to help the others pack.”
“At your service,” the monk said. He winked at Leah. “Another time, perhaps. And tell Lester to start being punctual.”
Brother Michaels joined another group of monks moving a table. Brett Anderson was professional, but Leah could see his slight annoyance at Brother Michaels’ impulsive behavior. “Shall we wait outside, Mrs. Brown?”
“Sure. Was Brother Michaels a rock singer?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Brett Anderson carried her box of wine bottles. As they stood outside, he offered information about the flamboyant monk. “Brother Michaels came to us one night after a personal tragedy. I guess he needed a place to heal and meditate. That’s what we are here for. Of course, we don’t provide therapy or sabbaticals. Then he asked to join the order. A novice can stay for a few months and then decide on a temporary three year profession if the elders agree. After that three year period, the monk can take final vows.”
“Have the elders made that first agreement, yet?”
“No,” Brett said. “But soon. Brother Michaels has brought some entertainment to the monastery…perhaps too much entertainment,” Anderson added. “He needs to remember his vow of silence.”
“I’d like to see his garden.”
“He is creating a beautiful garden. Why are you so interested?”
“He’s a charming man.”
“A Trappist monk needs to be devoted to a life of silence, work and worship, not charm.”
The rain had stopped by the time Lester arrived. Brett Anderson gave her the box and walked inside. Leah approached the pick-up and saw Lester’s face in the window. “Who the hell was that clown on the phone?”
“My monk boyfriend. Why were you late? Holding Alice’s scrawny hand?”
“No, I just forgot the time. I’m a horse’s ass, you know that. And Alice has suffered a tragedy. She’s never been alone, before.”
“No, she hasn’t.”
Leah got into the truck. As they drove away, she looked through the streaked side window for Brother Michaels, but he had disappeared. She also realized she hadn’t asked a vital question: what had happened to Brother Michaels’ woman?
Then it was summer and extremely dry and hot. Leah went to the hospital for a check-up, and sat across from the doctor holding her chart. He looked at her brain scan and shook his head.
“Well, I guess if I was a religious man, I’d say it was a miracle. I was sure you were brain dead.”
“What happened, exactly?”
The doctor explained how she had a hemorrhage between the brain and the skull and the pressure of the leaking blood created devastating pressure. Leah looked at the scan and though not a trained doctor, could see obstruction in the upper brain area.
“Then it seemed to heal itself. A subarachnoid hemorrhage can sometimes be contained, but in your case?” He shrugged. “Amazing. It does happen, occasionally, that some so called medical miracle occurs. We don’t know how it happens, however. Perhaps it’s just the body’s desperate drive to survive. I’ve seen one Alzheimer’s patient essentially brain dead take a sniff of oxygen after a stroke and suddenly awake, wondering why she was in a hospital. She called her startled daughter but slipped back into a dead state before the daughter arrived. I’ve seen patients wake up after many years in a coma. We just can’t explain everything,” the doctor said.
“But you don’t believe in divine miracles?”
“No,” the doctor said. “I need empirical evidence.” He looked at her and asked, “How is your memory?”
“I can remember everything going back to my childhood.”
“How about your short term memory?”
“I’ve had lapses at work. It’s coming back.”
“And your husband?”
“He’s fine. I may be back here if he talks me to death.”
“He was quiet, that day, subdued, though I knew he was in deep shock. You failed all my tests and I called it. The harvest team was literally in the air when you woke up.”
“And here I am.”
“Here you are. How’s the other fellow?”
“Yes, your first husband. Lester, I believe?”
“Lester is my first and only husband.”
“Really? I recall someone I thought to be your husband or maybe a significant other giving instructions to let Lester in.”
Leah stared at the doctor. “Let Lester in? I don’t understand.”
“Only spouses and relatives are admitted into intensive care, unless they have permission. Lester is your husband? Then and now?”
The doctor reviewed the hospital report. “I guess you’re right.”
“What did this so called ‘other’ husband look like? Mel Gibson?”
“No, but he had a nice face, and was tall, relatively thin.”
“My husband is Humpty Dumpty. He hasn’t been thin in twenty years. Do you have a picture?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Leah sat in the small office. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you do understand this. You have high blood pressure so you’re still at risk of this happening again…take your blood pressure medication and you must quit smoking,” the doctor warned her. “Or you could be back here again, and with no miracles, this time.”
“I’ll try, Doctor. I guess I’m just a drug addict. Tell me—about this ‘other’ husband.”
“Maybe I saw too many Twilight Zones.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t remember. Look, I’m just confusing you with another case.”
“How many brain aneurysms do you get?”
“Sadly, quite a few,” the doctor said. “Usually it’s from a trauma.”
Leah got up and started toward the door. The doctor called out.
“I can review the original admissions report and let you know.”
“Thanks.” Before she left, Leah had one more question. “It happened on a weekend, right?
“Right. We got a 911 call for an ambulance. I don’t think you were home.”
“Who made the call?”
When Leah arrived at home, she saw a note from Lester who had gone out to drink and play cards, so she ate dinner alone. It would soon become a pattern, eating alone and going to bed alone before Lester came home, often drunk.
“You need to spend more time at home,” she said at breakfast.
He glared at her over cornflakes. “I know I’m a horse’s ass, at times, but I need a little freedom, okay? We may have to sell the sheep. The New Zealand competition is kicking my ass. They don’t got coyotes in New Zealand.”
“We need to save our marriage,” Leah said. “You’re not a husband, you’re a roommate.”
“That’s nuts,” Lester said. “Besides, you need a familiar surrounding.”
“She’s fine and she’s got nothin’ to do with this. In fact, she invited us to a diner party. I think we should go.”
“Fine,” Leah said.
Often, Leah found herself looking around the small house in this small town in a rural area of the state surrounded by farms. She tried to remember the house and it did seem familiar, but it also seemed dead and sterile, like created rooms in a museum. A tall old clock in the hall kept time. Perhaps she didn’t belong here and Lester was meant to be a roommate. Perhaps Lester would soon leave.
But it was Leah who left first, leaving a note that summer on the kitchen table while Lester had the sheep on the open range. Mabel was in her front yard watering roses and waved to her as she drove toward the two lane road. Leah drove across open country with distant mountains to the Trappist monastery in another state. Brett Anderson received her.
“What a pleasant surprise,” he said. “The men and women live in separate bunkhouses but they come together for meals. You can join the monks for prayer in the big chapel, but we have many small private chapels for prayer and meditation. We ask that you help with chores, including the cattle, but you can have free time to meditate.” He smiled warmly at her. “You need to escape from the world?”
“I need escape from a lot of things.”
“Does your husband know you’re here?”
“Why did you choose our monastery?”
“Is there another?”
“I guess not.”
“Could I work with Brother Michaels on his garden? I have a fondness for plants and even something of a green thumb.”
Leah could feel the scrutiny as the monastery director observed her in silence.
“His garden is as big as a football field so we’ll certainly have enough vegetables to sell. He doesn’t use pesticides, either, so it’s totally organic, the latest craze. You want to work with him, you say?”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
“No, but it’s hard work in the hot sun.”
“I worked farms all my life.”
“He’s an interesting man,” Brett said. “A few women who come here find him attractive. Maybe it’s because monks are unavailable. You know—forbidden fruit. I don’t have to add that this is a meditative environment. Romances are discouraged.”
She hesitated. “What was his name before he came here?”
Brett Anderson leaned back in his chair. They could hear distant cattle and birds sang in the trees outside the office window. Leah was about to apologize for asking when he spoke: “Does it matter?”
“So far, we haven’t got all his paperwork. We still need baptism and confirmation certificates, but they can easily disappear.” There was a silence. “Bruce Michaels was the name he gave us when he came here. I think he’s more comfortable with us, now,” Brett said. He looked at her application. “It’s not necessary and we have many faiths, even a few secularists here, but do you believe Jesus Christ is your lord and savior?”
“You don’t consult crystal balls or astrology calendars?”
“You’re not coming here to research and write a novel?”
“Good.” He stood up. “Let me show you around.”
They walked the pleasant shaded grounds, looking at the cattle pens and the small rooms where each visitor slept. There were no televisions or radios. Brett Anderson pointed out a quiet grotto with a gazebo for visitors to sit quietly, and Leah felt a calm watching groups of monks and others on retreat. As they started walking toward the garden, Leah reached for a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke here, Mrs. Brown.”
“Of course.” She put the cigarette away. “It will be tough.”
“And we have only vegetarian meals, except for sick monks.”
“I can handle that.”
They stopped and looked at the massive garden built into a hill. Each quadrant was small but precisely laid out. It looked like a patchwork of many colors, and Leah knew the incline would help with irrigation. There were many colors: greens and reds and golds, the multi-colored roses and the leafy plants that the monks would soon harvest and sell. Workers stooped in the rows, weeding and moving soil. Then she saw Brother Michaels, wearing jeans, boots and a soiled shirt, preparing to run a waterline down a row. He looked thinner, and his face was tanned. He had grown a small beard, but the hair was shorter. Brett started to call out but Brother Michaels turned. He looked at Leah and nodded as Brett spoke:
“This is Leah Brown. She’s going to join us for two weeks and work in the garden.” Brett turned to her. “Lunch in an hour. We all believe in eating together, but in total silence.”
Brett glanced at Brother Michaels and walked away. Leah turned and saw the monk now walking toward her. She wanted to ask many questions and even embrace him. Leah could feel her heart racing though the monk’s expression remained neutral. To Brother Michaels and the other workers, Leah was any new visitor volunteering for the garden crew. Brother Michaels walked past her to a parked van and came back with a spade, some gloves, and a hat.
“You’ll need these, Mrs. Brown. I also have something for your arthritis, but don’t overwork your hands.” He directed her to a section of the garden. Brother Michaels addressed his crew. “Let the others attend to noisy, smelly cattle. Our purpose is more noble: the battle against the almighty weed.”
It was good to hear that dramatic voice, again. They began working. Leah’s hands started aching and she was glad when the bell for lunch sounded. There had been a strange moment when, trying to uncoil the long heavy hose, she felt Brother Michaels come up behind her and gently take the hose from her, their bodies close for a moment. She liked the feel of his arms, remembering the first time in high school she sat on a boy’s lap and felt his sex and the warmth as his arms encircled her in a moving car. She smelled the sweat on the monk’s headband and once again was running naked with a naked lover through a field of golden poppies.
Lunch was served in a hall and Leah sat with the other guests, the monks seated across from them. Brother Michaels faced her, either by coincidence or luck. She looked up from her vegetables and pea soup. She watched him spread mayonnaise on his asparagus and then lick it slowly before biting off the head. She slipped a juicy halved peach into her mouth and caught him watching. An old priest led them in a prayer, and with head bowed, Leah noticed Brother Michaels staring vacantly at the table. After the prayer, she wrote on a napkin: I would like to talk to you. He shook his head. Brett Anderson walked through the hall and nodded to her.
Back in the garden, Leah pulled more weeds until her hands ached. She suddenly felt dizzy. Brother Michaels gave her some water with a pill, and after their work was finished, Leah walked toward her dorm room, craving a cigarette. She stopped in the small chapel. Leah found the Catholic Mass dull compared to the lively Lutheran service, but the religion itself was more dramatic. They seemed to have more martyred saints. Leah stared at Christ hanging on the cross. gaping wounds still bleeding profusely. A few others sat in silence. When she walked outside, she saw Brother Michaels sitting in the gazebo. She walked toward the little grotto and sat next to him.
“Brother Michaels, I presume?”
He pointed to his lips and shook his head.
“Still not talking?”
He nodded yes.
“Who is Bruce Michaels?”
The monk pointed to himself and winked. She saw no other change in Brother Michaels’ face. Then he relaxed and shrugged.
“Are you glad to see me?”
He touched his heart like a mime. They heard crickets and the air was pleasantly warm. Leah started talking, explaining that soon she may divorce her husband. He had a choice, counseling which he would never accept, or a divorce, which didn’t disturb her as it should have. “My kids will feel bad but they’re grown.” She looked at him. “I see you’ve gotten to like vegetables.”
He nodded yes.
“Mr. Anderson warned me about romances while on retreat.”
Brother Michaels whistled and wiped his brow in a theatrical manner. Leah laughed.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. She faced him. “You tell me. Why am I here?”
He met her eyes but didn’t speak. They heard the voice of Brett Anderson.
“Mrs. Brown, Brother Michaels has vespers. Why don’t you come and look at our livestock? We have a few sheep, you know.”
“Certainly,” Leah said. She got up. Brother Michaels waved good-bye to her as she walked away with the director of the monastery. She walked past a pasture with Hereford beef cattle, and then Leah saw the small herd of sheep grazing on a hill.
“We use them for wool, but I guess we could start selling them.”
“After lambing, that’s what you’re supposed to do, let them graze, fatten them up and sell them for meat.”
“We also have a bee-keeping operation if you’re interested.” They leaned against a fence. Leah enjoyed the bucolic scene but sensed Brett Anderson was troubled. “Your husband called,” he said. “He thinks you’ve been bewitched by some sick monk.”
“Sick monk? I came here to get away from Lester. He comes home late and usually drunk. I think he’s seeing another woman.”
“Does he know Brother Michaels?”
“I doubt it.”
“I don’t want him coming down here disturbing our peaceful retreat.”
“I don’t either,” Leah said. “Brother Michaels is a decent soul, a breath of fresh air.”
Brett Anderson didn’t respond. They started walking back. He didn’t want to tell her that Brother Michaels’ social security number was a fake, and that they had no proof of his age, a requirement for the monastery. The new abbot would demand an explanation. Occasionally, mentally disturbed people showed up at the monastery seeking some personal vision or salvation but not a true vocation.
“I do like the peaceful feeling, here,” Leah said.
“The new abbot arrives tomorrow.”
“I look forward to meeting him.”
They walked toward the main hall and the large building where the guests slept. Leah wondered why she was here and if she would dream of Brother Michaels, that night. One past nightmare was disturbing: Leah was meeting the phantom lover in a motel, stripping off her clothes, waiting for his hot embrace and full lips, when a sharp pain hit her brain and she found herself in a vortex, swirling toward a black sea of oblivion. Voices were sounding all around her when she suddenly awoke, sweating and exhausted.
In the morning after bread and tea, she watched the monks finishing their early morning prayers. Brother Michaels knelt among them, and sitting in the pleasant chapel in an outdated building, she wondered why men would choose this cold sexless life of prayer and meditation. Were they worshipping God or denying life?
Her work detail at the garden revealed a problem. Brother Michaels pointed to a mound of dirt that looked like a small volcano. “Mole,” he said, barely audible.
“Least it’s not a gopher,” said Leah. They’re worse. They eat plants. Moles eat insects.”
“But a mole can inadvertently damage the roots with his digging. Even in the garden of Eden comes this new snake.”
He made hand signals to another assistant to who gave directions. “We’re digging and preparing a new quadrant, people. This way.”
Leah wanted to talk to Brother Michaels but followed the group of volunteers. She saw the monk staring at the molehill. In an hour, after using a rototiller, she felt an ache in her hands and the air was growing hotter, the morning dew gone. Then she heard a familiar voice and turning, saw Lester glaring at her.
“What the hell are you doing? I got a crew back home that needs to be fed.”
“So feed them. You know how to cook.”
“Leah, be reasonable. You’re not even a Catholic.”
“It’s peaceful, here.”
“Peaceful? The kids are worried. You had some memory loss, you know. You’re supposed to heal in a familiar environment.”
“It’s not my environment,” Leah said. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Look, we separated before it happened, but it’s worth another shot.”
“Separated? I knew it! Who did I run off with? Tell me that!”
“You ran off with no one. Please come home, Leah.”
Lester stood in the bright morning light, holding a straw hat between his big hands. Leah saw Brett Anderson and an older priest walking toward them.
“You can’t be here, Mr. Brown,” Brett called out. “This is our abbot, Father Sheehan, and you need permission to stay here.”
“This is…was my wife,” Lester said. “She needs help.”
“This is a place of meditation,” the abbot said. “Surely you understand.”
“Understand what? Where’s that goofy sick monk bastard?”
“That’s enough, Lester,” Leah warned. “You need to leave.”
As Brett Anderson and the abbot circled Lester, they saw Brother Michaels coming across the field carrying a shotgun. There was a burning unnatural light in his eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” Lester said. “What new game is this?”
Leah felt a rush of fear. Perhaps there had been a moment when she fantasized loving this man outside the monastery. Brett Anderson and Father Sheehan pulled away from Lester who stood facing Brother Michaels as he walked by them lifting the shotgun; pointing at the molehill, he fired both barrels.
* * *
Leah and Lester left the monastery in separate cars, Leah carrying a phone number of the mysterious monk who would explain everything if she chose to call. Leah drove down the highway, trying to put it all in perspective. Mabel and Alice had invited her to play cards and Lester would not be there. Did they have some secret to reveal? She also had a message to call her doctor. He would know who admitted her that day. Perhaps Leah would then call Brother Michaels, after talking to the doctor. At one point, feeling dizzy, she had to stop at a small town pharmacy. Leah found a blood pressure machine which confirmed her pressure had spiked. Leah knew she needed to get home and take her medication. She lived in fear of that sudden headache coming back, but lit a cigarette while driving home.
At the monastery, Brother Michaels stood in the small office and told Brett Anderson and the abbot that he had tried to keep his bargain with God, but either God had rejected his promise to serve or their celebrated deity didn’t exist anymore than Jupiter or Zeus did.
“What bargain?” Brett Anderson finally asked, his voice subdued.
“I wanted Leah Brown to live. I promised to enter a monastery if God brought her back from a coma. She did come back and I came here.”
“Her medical condition had nothing to do with any bargain,” Brett said. “Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe it’s your fantasy. Maybe it’s another elaborate lie. Mr. Brown is right—you need help.”
“We don’t recognize miracles as easily as you do.”
“Well maybe I do, Father Sheehan. Or I did. I have kept my word.”
“You don’t have a true vocation, that’s all,” the abbot explained. “You are excused from all religious duties.”
“I know I will never abandon the woman I love again…regardless of threats or promises.”
The abbot looked at his watch. “Speaking of promises, it’s time for prayers,” he said.
Michaels couldn’t leave without a parting shot from a favorite author, Albert Camus: “All your certainties aren’t worth a single strand of a woman’s hair.”
“Three cheers for the French existentialists. Please go,” Brett Anderson said. “We’ll take care of your garden. It really is quite beautiful, you know,” he added, not unkindly.
Brother Michaels appreciated the comment. He felt comfortable in jeans, a white shirt, and Levi jacket. “My work of art,” he said. “Feed it, nurture it, enjoy its sparkling colors and partake of its fruit in remembrance of me.”
“We’ll retrieve your buckshot,” said the abbot. “And deport the mole. Good bye and good luck, Mr. Michaels.”
“Father Sheehan? My name is Brewer, Michael Brewer.”
And then he was driving his old battered Chevy Nova through the open desert of Utah. Michael Brewer took some comfort that visitors in the future would marvel at his carefully sculpted garden, and that the gentle monks would benefit from the sale of its vegetables. Driving always allowed him the pleasure of thought and consideration. It was a form of meditation. He thought of the lovely Leah.
He remembered their chance meeting on good Friday and the days and nights of their secret liaison; he remembered Leah collapsing in his arms in a remote motel; he remembered kneeling at Leah’s hospital bedside, her estranged husband waiting outside in the lobby demanding entrance; he remembered staring at Leah’s still face with the animal-looking snout coming out of her mouth and the slow rise and fall of her chest with the respirator. Then he found himself kneeling by the bed, his hands touching her leg and shoulder, eyes filled with tears, his face pressed against her side, his lips moving in a desperate prayer: “Please, God.” A bargain was made. Now the bargain was nullified. Despite the angel’s warning, he would find Leah Brown and they would start again, two lovers committed to a life together, two lovers who had cheated death, earning a second chance.
Off the shotgun highway, he saw the familiar motel. A hitchhiker stood by the road. Michael Brewer’s cell phone rang.
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!