The Monk of Zege
by Mahtem Shiferraw
It takes a while for the blood to dry up, the staunch odor to lose its ferociousness, its glossiness to suddenly become undone. And when it does, it comes unwarranted: when the walls seemed to be closing up, when the sun was setting on a fiery earth and all that was left of the day was the haunting despair in which it encountered each night its own death, the blood was at its most engulfing nature. Surely the monk’s hands must have felt it coming; the rush, so quick, so urgent, it seemed his whole body was shaken by it. It came in droplets at first, and it seemed so harmless the monk’s hands chose to simply wipe off the crimson waters on parched walls and wet grass. Gradually, the droplets increased, spurting from every pore, and gathered themselves in the valleys of his palms, tiny rivers he followed intently with those big black eyes. What was he supposed to make of this? It was more irritating than alarming, and since he had vowed to become patient, humble, loving, he had to make an effort to reiterate those values to himself again. But when it happened, it was as if a deep, raucous laughter had been released from his insides, and he felt all of it, from the first wave until the last, a flooding he had never experienced before. But that wasn’t all of it; what intrigued him the most, in fact, were the small cavities that had constructed themselves right where the pool of blood had been, in both of his palms. It wasn’t that obvious at first; the monk did not feel anything at all. The second time, he heard it; it was almost a whisper – the voice, moist, saturated, and it didn’t come out in words, no, it must have been another language because the monk could not understand what it meant, and yet he knew exactly its significance. And there, right before his eyes, his palms underwent a sort of limp transformation; the dry skin was stretched and smoothed out, the extremities of the phalanges seemed to have augmented their sense of touch, and finally, his ulnar bursa sunk in a bit, the thenar muscles dissipating as if they were made of water and he saw them, he saw through them and through to the other side. Quite a vision for a hermit monk like himself.
It all started the morning he met the monkey. The monk had woken up around four in the morning for his prayers, as usual. The air was damp and cold, and as he was nearing his sixtieth year of life, the rheumatisms in his body were increasing at an alarming rate. The cabin he shared with two other monks was built to retain heat at night and disperse it in the morning, so when he got up, his body was sticky with sweat and he knew as soon as he got out of the door he would be slapped with the cold winds that inhabited the peninsula of Zege at night. The peninsula was perhaps the largest one surrounding the city of Bahir Dar, literally meaning “sea-shore”, located in the north-western region of Ethiopia. At 1,955 meters above sea level, its sides kissed by Lake Tana and its birthing child, the Blue Nile, the peninsula was immersed in ghostly weather that changed from warm air with crisp, cool breeze, to chilling temperatures during the night.
The monk contemplated for a moment or two whether he should conduct his morning prayers inside; the two other monks were sound asleep (he couldn’t keep track of their prayer schedule), but he already knew the answer to that. He clothed himself in his everyday outfit with slow, tired gestures: a golden tunic, cotton pants, and various cuta with emerald green and cobalt shades wrapped around his body to protect him from the cold. Finally, he placed a velvety white netela on his head and wrapped it softly around his cranium, careful not to leave any graying hairs out, and covered the upper segment of his forehead where a deep S-shaped scar had rested for years. When he was done, he whispered a few prayers as he was picking up the luminous skin of his bible and prayer books, and tucking them in the warmth beneath his robes. His feet were cold in the rubber shoes; normally he wouldn’t even need shoes, but with his age and with the harsh weather, he had to allow himself a little bit of comfort.
As soon as he reached the door, he heard it. A knock, slight, gentle, but a knock nonetheless. Who dared to present himself at that hour, in an isolated peninsula? The monk took a step back caught off guard and looked around to see if his companions had woken up – they hadn’t. The monk reached for the door again, and there it was, the slight knock, almost as if someone had accidentally brushed against the wooden surface of the door. The monk evaluated the possibility of other monks from neighboring peninsulas coming at that time; unless it was an emergency – and he couldn’t think of any emergency that required crossing the lake at that time – he couldn’t think of anybody that would do such a thing. Finally, as he was waiting to hear the knock again, it daunted him, a thought he explored timidly so many times before, but was not quite courageous enough to say it out loud, to himself or the other monks in the peninsula. What if it was his Lord, finally coming to see him? It wasn’t that farfetched, seeing how he had always wanted to see the Lord with his own eyes. But the thought was too strong, too powerful for his frail body to bear at that hour of the night, and he could feel the unforgiving nails of the cold sinking deeper into his bones, waking his rheumatisms and other maladies he didn’t know he had. The thought, suddenly, came to him like a rock thrown at his head; the impact was too much to assess in solitude, and it was too weak to evaluate out loud, and it was too wonderful to deny its veracity, and perhaps even too farfetched in a way because why would the Lord, in his grandeur and resplendent light, choose to manifest himself to the monk? And that second thought destroyed him a little bit inside; it ignored the sharp symptoms of rheumatism, it ignored the laughter that was beginning to shape itself in his lower abdomen and spread slowly all over his weary body, it ignored his big black eyes bulging of joy and wonder underneath the white wrap.
As soon as the monk came to his senses, he was irritated at himself for having allowed his thoughts to go that far, for allowing himself to hope. Again. What a waste. In his clumsy irritation, he yanked the door open and spat the animal on the other side all the way to the fence. When he approached it, the body of the animal was lying still: its extremities stabbing the dirt, its breath steady, its tail immobile, and a trail of blood slowly making its way from the body towards the monk.
The monk stared without really knowing what to make of it.
“Well, clearly you’re not my Lord,” he said. It was the first time he had spoken since he woke up, and his words came out sharp and sticky, and he was taken aback by his angered tone.
He walked closer and realized the animal was still alive.
It was still dark outside, but the monk could clearly see its gray fur, splitting hairs softly as the winds caressed the small body. It was a vervet monkey, with gray whitening fur coating its small body, a shade darker in the hands and feet. The tail was still dangling, longer than the entire body, its tip black as coal, wriggling slowly on the dirt, and then back to cover the body, revealing a deep turquoise set of genitals. It was a male monkey. It had an olive-colored head and the contours of its face were the soft black shade of his hands and feet. His eyes were barely open. The monk stared at the monkey, astonished; what was it doing at that hour, so far deep into the peninsula? Vervet monkeys were one of the most common species inhabiting the peninsula of Zege, but they never ventured alone, this far, at night. They were mostly arboreal and wandered around the inhabited areas only when in need of food. The monk checked around to see if he was being observed, but so far he couldn’t hear anything; only the chants of fellow monks from nearby monasteries above the complacent rustle of lake waters.
The monk picked up the animal by its sides; the body was very hot and he could hear a faint heartbeat. The fur was soft and ashen. The monk wrapped it in one of his cuta and took him to the back room, where a cool breeze was sifting through the cracks of the windows. The monk laid the body on the floor, still covered in the cuta, and poured some water on the wound; though small, the monkey’s chest was swelling with a dark liquid. The hands of the monk washed the animal gently, slowly, washing away the blood and splitting a piece of rag to wrap around it. As he did so, the monk could not help but look at his own hands; the bleeding had only started shortly before that morning and it still seemed so unreal. In fact, the monk had convinced himself that it actually hadn’t happened at all; otherwise, how was he supposed to explain the phenomenon to himself, let alone to others? Perhaps it was a sickness of some sort; it wasn’t unusual for hermit monks like himself to catch a rare malady and they treated it as they would with any other obstacle – it had to be overcome, sustained, they had to endure whatever the Lord sent their way, whatever they considered a distraction from their real purpose in life, which was to serve God in every way and at every moment of the day. It was a noble calling indeed, and it required them an incredible amount of strength and unabridged faith to continue living such a fulfilling and simple life. They were content, even happy, doing their daily chores, praying, cooking, taking care of their gardens and small animals (such as sheep and goats) in order to be self-sustained. Most knew all the vegetation surrounding their islands and peninsulas by simply looking at the texture of their greenness, or by the anomalous odors the plants released only in the early hours of a wet evening. They mended and sowed their own clothing – mostly wraps made of colorful cottons to keep them warm at night, and guarded from the eyes of visiting strangers during the day.
From time to time, they took short trips to the other islands in the bellies of wooden canoes (it was believed that there were thirty-six islands total) to participate in prolonged prayers and rituals, or to simply visit a sick fellow monk, and they brought with them boiled eucalyptus leaves embalmed with other herbs, fresh honey in goatskin jars, and yellowing lard. They prayed for the sick ones and offered their goods, and while there, visited their fellow monks’ monasteries before going back to their islands. Sometimes they stayed longer, for days at a time, having found something different to do, like counseling a new and younger apprentice monk, or the always troubled people that seemed to come to them for reassurance and guidance. Without realizing it, they found themselves uttering the same words they had read in their holy books, words full of power and wisdom, words that could break walls and feed souls in unexpected ways, words they didn’t even know they possessed inside them. It would have been easy to become arrogant with that kind of power, since the visitors were always thankful, kind, and even too forward with them. It would have been easy, but they were not baited by easy and worldly things; they ate, yes, and slept, yes, and got tired and old and became sick with age and the cold freezing their bones, but their spirits remained untouched, and their spirits did not allow them to be arrogant, or boastful, or even for a moment, proud of their work and their words. Instead, their spirits encouraged them to be more caring, loving, trustworthy, poised. They were taught the painful art of patience, and the patient art of pain through daily obstacles – thoughts of ambitions, rumors of unsatisfied relatives, troubled visitors, difficult young monastic students, or worse, outsiders who came to them in the name of scholarship and academic research. You are interesting, they were told, and they said, No, my God is interesting. You are so wise, they were praised, and said, No, my Lord is so wise. You are strong, they were encouraged, and replied, It is only in Him that I have the courage to be strong. But regardless of what they said, or did, regardless of humbling and genuine attitude, the light shone on them everywhere they went; they were dutifully praised, fed, befriended, and mostly, admired for having chosen such an isolated and unassuming life. In reality, it was they who were chosen to be part of that life, but that was between them and God.
And after enduring so many years in the solitude of their islands, a solitude that was provided to them only through seclusion from the outside world and in the comfort of their own monasteries, they were strong enough, if not physically, then spiritually, to overcome anything and anyone, to persevere with joy and prayer. They took pleasure in very small and simple things – the soft texture of wet grass, the rustling sound of the lake in the mornings, the multi-sematic pigments of the wildlife inhabiting the islands, endemic birds, monkeys, snakes. Though they each had their own downfalls – whether it was short temper, inertia, anger, they taught themselves to be kind and patient with each being they encountered. And that included both animals and humans alike.
So when the monk encountered the vervet monkey, and realized in horror that he might have been the reason for the animal getting wounded, it was only natural for him to show some kindness to it, and nurse it back to health. Of course, he did not anticipate the fact that the animal would wake up all of a sudden, revived to its senses at the touch of a human hand holding him as if he was a baby, and the aching pain in its chest burning like the midday sun. It was a peculiar situation for both. The monk jumped immediately from his seat, with the disgusting sensation of having been bitten by the animal, and the monkey sunk its sharp teeth into the folded skin of the human’s hands that seemed to have found rest on its velvety fur. The monkey made its way to the upper body of the monk, then climbed back to his neck and finally rested on his head which was covered in a small white wrap. As the animal made his way to the human’s head, its hands and feet were unabashedly battering the monk’s frail body, while the monkey’s chest was giving way to another rain of blood, dripping everywhere on their frightened bodies and their surroundings – crimson spots enlarged themselves on the monk’s clothing, some fell into the dirt bubbling up in small patches, others cavalcaded onto the animal’s gray fur and meshed into a new color from a murky, dull pink to a rich deep purple. Both the monkey and the monk had not realized the anomalous high pitch sounds their mouths were emitting, and in a moment of heightened fear of one another, the volume of their shrieks was sharp and shrill, waking up fellow monks who had been sleeping soundlessly in the adjacent room. The shrieks did not belong to a man, of course, they were more the signal of wild animalistic behavior that arose only in moments of erroneous danger; the monk’s belly had enlarged just a bit, his abdomen stiffened, and a puzzling yet dense sense of danger had bloated him quickly and collected in his mid-section, right between his tibia and second rib, transforming itself into a sharp shrill that broke out from his mouth without premonition. Ah, the wonders a fear induced moment can hold!
By the time the monk had reestablished its balance and yanked the warm body of the animal away from his head, his wrap had come undone, and the blood spots on his clothing were wet and sticky. With all the fuss, he did not hear the other monks coming, still in their night garments and alarmed faces, until it was all quieted down. When the monk looked up, both of them were staring at him in disbelief.
“The monkey …” the monk’s voice came out like solid vomit, and he threw it at them in a matter-of-fact tone.
“The monkey?” they both responded, “What monkey?”
The monk looked around; he could sense the animal was already gone. Now, he could only feel cold winds whispering on his bald spot, the stickiness of the blood on his clothing, and the knot in his abdomen had dissolved itself into something even more frightening: the sour notion of being the only witness to his story. He could sense the monks trying to form an opinion of him in the most kind and polite way they could, at four o’clock in the morning, having found him in a maddening brawl with himself, and the thought of a nonexistent monkey lingering between them like a ripened, gray cloud.
“There was a monkey, here?” One of them asked, finally.
“Yes.” It was a whisper.
“And … and it did that, to you?” Pointing at his clothing and naked head.
“All right. And it flew out of the window?”
“Yes. I mean no, of course not. Monkeys don’t fly. It walked out.”
“It walked out? Like a man?”
There was a tense exchange of looks.
“Why don’t you get some sleep?” They suggested.
“Absolutely not. I’m too shaken.”
“Aren’t we all?”
The ripened, gray cloud had poured itself into an ugly truth: it wasn’t about believing him any longer, it was simply about placating his maddening mind into sleep and rest, blaming old age and his persisting illness, and perhaps even the numerous difficulties of the hermit life he had chosen for himself.
The monk sighed, surrendering his story to the obfuscated mind with which he had clearly seen and interacted with a soft furred vervet monkey.
Aba Yohannes Kiflemariam, one of the monk’s companions (a hermit monk himself) is asked his thoughts on his fellow friar. He smiles a toothless smile, and his eyes recede into a deeper and joyous abyss when he smiles. He wears a cloth the shade of larvae green, the somber color of the Lake Tana in the aftermath of the rainy season.
“He is a God-fearing man, as we all are,” he says, in the most solemn tone he could possibly muster.
He says we, but he means, I, as in himself.
The smile stretches itself into small creases of corrugated skin onto his face. He has lineaments as numerous as the bones in his body and takes pride in the fact that his face would be too difficult for an artist to paint, or etch on a rock or on any other surface.
It is insisted that he elaborate his answer.
“There is nothing much to say,” perhaps a smidgen of guilt was making its way into his thoughts. He sits on a small wooden stool, carved from the insides of a century old oak wood. His back is arched, bent forward towards his lap, towards the half bitten kitta he baked sometime during the week.
“You know, once, I caught him staring at the sky,” his voice is finally calm, colorless. “It’s quite boring, and I didn’t make much of it at the moment, but now that I think about it, he was simply staring at the sky. You have to understand, these things happen a lot with us hermit souls. But still, it was quite staggering to see him there, looking up, for hours, in silence, while his eyes were speaking a language that can only be heard by angels. I knew right then, that something must be terribly wrong with him, or, you know, terribly right too.”
A silence rolls on its back and into the spiking dry grass spread sporadically on the ground.
“And another time, we had gone fishing down by the lake, and he was looking for something … ahem … I think he said luminous? I’m not sure what he meant by that. But he is so diligent in everything he does you can’t help but take him seriously. I remember, it was early morning after our prayers, and one of our fellow monks had come for a short visit from the island of Wenjet’a. We wanted to honor him with something special, and it’s not like we can eat anything we want here. I mean, we have everything we need, of course, but … anyway, we went fishing down the lake. Some children were already there, in short shorts and sunny smiles, trying to do the same thing. We were stationed by the lower banks of the lake on the east side, where the vegetation is the fullest, the green is the softest I’ve ever seen. The sun had just come into that side, its rays split in halves and lighting directly into the murky waters of the lake. It looked like light sent from heaven. We had some old nets given to us by visitors a long time ago. Anyway, we threw the nets a little further into the water, and we were waiting for the fish to get entangled. That’s when I realized what he was doing; he was staring at the sky again, but who wouldn’t? The clouds were plump and milky, and the cheerful laughter of the boys from afar was intoxicating. But then he asked me if I had seen it, and I said, seen what, but he was already on the lookout. The light! Did you see the light, he wanted to know. I thought he meant, in general. Of course, I said, if I hadn’t seen the light I would not have become a monk. He didn’t say anything, but started looking in the water. His feet were walking so fast underneath the surface I thought he was going to scare away the fish we were trying to catch. What light, I said then. Maybe he had seen something, or someone after all? He was adamant about it, the light, in here, we must look for it, he said. I saw something in his eyes then, something I haven’t seen in a long time, something I was introduced to only when I was a boy living with a single, disgraced mother. Everyone said she was cursed, and for the better part of my childhood, I believed she was. Poor mother! On days like the one at the lake, with murky waters and a pasty sky hovering over us, her eyes were thrown back into their sockets, and suddenly her lovely pupils seemed lifeless, and she started shaking and shaking and foamy sputter would come out of her mouth, sometimes mixed with blood, a river of crimson draping her body. Once, I swear I thought I saw a bit of her tongue cut off, but she never admitted to it, of course. It is what I saw then that remained with me as I grew up, the knowledge that my own mother was cursed into that being, into that sort of madness, and the fact that I couldn’t do anything about it, because I was only a boy, you know, and children have little to do with what adults do to themselves, except, of course, being born unannounced, as I did. That madness remained with me, of course, but I learned to forget about it, through my prayers and dedication to a simpler and more fulfilling life, through a life of service to my God, so my mother could be released from her curse and cured and …”
A fat, pouty tear made its way from his eyes down his left cheek and sunk into the white beard adorning his chin.
“I’m a silly old man.” He apologizes and recomposes himself, shifting uncomfortably in the wooden stool. “Anyway, why were talking about this? Ah yes, the fishing. I tried to calm him down, we desperately needed the fish and I didn’t have the energy to wait for it until midday – the sunlight was scorching then. But he would have none of it, he kept looking around, splashing the water into the air as if there was something hidden underneath it all, and at some point, he even started yelling strange words in a language I’ve never heard before. People were starting to stare. He can be dramatic sometimes. I’m sorry, how impolite of me.” He bites another piece of kitta, chews it slowly and swallows it. He does not gesture as he speaks, his hands are simply resting on his lap, but his fingers shake slowly in the precise moments he mentions his mother. “As monks, we don’t really like to draw attention to ourselves. So I tried to calm him any way I could, you know, I called God’s name on him, I implored him to stop splashing the water and scaring away the fish, I reminded him of our visitor waiting. He listened to none of it. There it is, he said at one point, there it is, something luminous, can you see it? I told him, why yes, now I see it, you were right all along. He was hopeful, for a moment, and I did see something luminous, but it must have been the scintillating skin of the catfish that found its head suddenly stuck in the mouths of our net. I walked over quickly and wrapped the net around the fish, it was a bit large to be swimming those banks, and came back to the shore quickly. I didn’t even wait for my feet to dry; I couldn’t help him anymore. Only God could help him.”
He is asked if he left him there, all alone, to search for something luminous.
“Yes, I did leave. I couldn’t see it. I thought perhaps he was looking for another fish. But I knew he wasn’t. He was always looking for things in places he wasn’t supposed to. Who looks for light under the water? You look for water under the water, or earth, or pebbles, or algae and other vegetation. You don’t look for light! But who am I to say that to him, to prevent him from what seemed to be his path?”
He is asked what he did to help his fellow friar.
“I prayed. Oh God, I prayed until my eyes bled.” His voice is suddenly quiet, only a murmur now. He wipes off another tear that had approached the corner of his eyes in a swift gesture. “I thought maybe my mother’s curse had found him. Who knows? Only God knows. I prayed for him. That is all I can do, really, though I didn’t help my mother – she died in the shaking the day I was sent away to become an apprentice at the monastery. I could still try to help him. So I prayed, until my eyes bled, and the light was shunned from my pupils.”
He looks away, to the small opening of a window, past the trees and the thick vegetation, past the waters. Only then one could notice the blindness that had pervaded his eyes, and not his soul.
The monk did not say much for the rest of the day. He was clearly shaken by the fact that he had encountered an animal, silently ridiculed at such hour, and to what end? He remained in his solitary self until the palpable air of distrust and distress was cleared between himself and the other monks. It wasn’t easy to live with the most humble and kind creatures in the world and have them mistrust him so deeply (though involuntarily). The monks, on their part, remained kind, as they always did; neither of them mentioned the incident with the monkey, but every time they looked at him, he could sense their big sympathetic gazes pinching his back like the antennas of a hungry ant.
When evening came and the monks had retreated to the cabin, he ventured out from the back door, walking past the clutter of sholla trees and grazing acacias growing on abandoned fences, their leaves sharp and spiking like barbed wire. He walked slowly, his eyes transfixed on something further away, his expression blank as if he was in trance. He didn’t encounter any passersby; at that hour, all the residents of the peninsula were gathered in their homes for an early supper. When the monk reached the banks of the lake, he squatted down on the dirt, just a few meters away. He touched the dirt with his hands, his fingers, his palms that had shown quite worrisome signs of belonging to another world, with random splatters of blood and other liquids showing up at the most inconvenient of times. The eyes of the monk followed the lines of his fingers into the space at the center of the palm, where a hollow space resided undisturbed. His hypothenar muscles must have stretched just a bit, to give way to the emptying of the ulnar bursa. And now, to make matters worse, the monk had noticed the same effect replicated in his feet. It was an unsettling thing, being able to see through his feet and into the dirt. An unguarded laughter escaped from his throat, quietly at first, then gradually whirling from his chest and filling his mouth and spitting into a warm, balmy noise – unlike his usual quick and nervous sound that came out only when he was amused, which was quite rare these days.
The monk sat there, laughing, for what seemed like an eternity, rotating his feet one at a time in the cold evening breeze, unable to believe what was happening to him and yet conspicuously conscious of the fact that the soft skin coating the cavity on both his feet was feeling the chillness of the winds distinctly travelling through the skin.
It was in this matter of extraordinary occurrence that the monk found himself experiencing something ordinary, so peacefully ordinary that made him more joyous than he’d ever been. And it was because of the peace that he felt inside – from the middle of his abdomen, into the pumice pores of his lungs and into the bare skin of his bald head – that he felt the need to laugh out loud with such vigor, a sound that awakened the creature dangling just underneath the lake, not too far from where the monk had squatted.
When the monk realized the intimidating presence of another creature in that close proximity, his laughter ceased immediately. He looked around to see if any of the other monks had followed him there, or if any intrusive visitors were witnessing his mystifying actions. Then, he heard it: a deep growl, swallowing of water and a slow, slow movement underneath the wet surface. The monk did not get up; instead, he waited for it to jump at him all of a sudden. It didn’t. The body came out of the water unhurriedly, the skin glossy and luminous, the shade of wet dirt and the rosy cheeks of un-blossomed tulips in early spring. The short-stacked feet were still dangling in the water; its mouth could have swallowed the monk’s upper body in one quick motion. Small, bored eyes flickered in the darkness, their glistening overwhelmed only by the tiny ears, turned in the direction of the laughter. The monk witnessed in wonder as the corpulent body of a dormant hippopotamus got out of the lake, released fat droplets of water from itself and walked past the human being who had dared to disturb his evening peace. At that point, the monk was terrified of the animal hurting him – though not carnivores, hippopotamuses were notorious for exhibiting hostile behavior when facing a dangerous situation – so he didn’t even move from where he was sitting. The darkness of the evening was in its descent then; and only the distant chatter of the inhabitants of the peninsula, and the embossed chants from nearby monasteries were stuck in the monk’s ears. The monk remained there even long after the hippopotamus had left, still trying to hold his breath and failing to do so, as the honey-eyed laughter pervaded his body with stronger tentacles than before.
Just above where the monk was sitting, a pair of intrigued black eyes was following his actions closely. When the hippopotamus was long gone, two hands snatched a small branch from the tree, where the vervet monkey had been sitting down this whole time, and threw it in the direction of the laughing monk. The first attempt landed way too far; the monkey tried again and again, until at last, he was able to hit the monk’s head, even if only gently. The monk did not stop laughing, a strange sound that amused the monkey too, but turned his head anyway to stare at the tree. When his eyes encountered the eyes of the monkey, he jumped up immediately and landed on the ball of his feet, causing him to lose balance and fall on his buttocks with a loud thump. The monkey’s eyes seemed to have widened with pleasure, and his mouth opened to let out a squeal. The monk managed to get up clumsily and pointed to the monkey.
“You! You dare come here!” he said, now angry.
The monkey continued to squeal and throw leaves and pieces of branches it had chewed on.
“Stop it! I know you can understand what I’m saying. I was trying to save you and … Now, they think I’m a fool, if only they could see you, they would …”
The monk stopped mid-thought. Yes, that’s it! If only they could see that the monkey was real, they wouldn’t attempt to placate his madness ever again, they would believe him instead, and perhaps apologize for the gross mistrust in him. The monk’s eyes shined so luminously at that thought, he saw a glimpse of himself reflected in the monkey’s eyes.
“You know what? Let’s start all over again. I’m sorry I scared you.” His tone was reconciliatory, his quick unnerved hand gestures now drooping down his sides like rotten fruits.
The monkey noticed the change in the monk’s tone.
“Let me see your chest, I can help you,” the monk continued, “In fact, I’m an excellent healer. Come down. I won’t hurt you.”
The monkey was quiet now, but still hesitant.
“And I forgive you for biting me,” the monk added.
The monkey looked at him, then looked away, then again at him again, as if trying to decide.
The monk walked away slowly.
“Here, you can come down now.” The monk was already a bit further.
The monkey jumped down and stayed there, in the spot where the monk had been only a moment ago. The monk saw that the animal was ready to trust him; that’s all he ever really needed. When the monk took a few steps forward, the monkey took a few steps forward. It was following him, the monk realized. He could have jumped for joy but he didn’t want to scare the animal away. He wanted to take him back to the cabin, and demonstrate to his fellow monks that he was telling the truth. From time to time the monkey became distracted, nibbling on blades of grass or scaring a squirrel away. The monk kept a safe distance, walking slowly, and yet still closing in the distance between them, carefully so as to not alarm the monkey. It took them almost twenty minutes to reach the front porch of the cabin; the vegetation was shaved off around their place of residence, creating a hollow space. The monk was so close to the monkey now he could feel its soft furred skin, the warmth emanating from the small body, the almost inaudible squeals and shrieks it was emitting as it was walking closer to him. Before he had the chance to grab its tail and hold it tight, the front door of the cabin was yanked open and one of the monks appeared, his tall figure towering over them like a shadow unsewn from its body.
“Abate, what is it?” the tone of the voice was tired, but firm.
The monk almost jumped for joy.
“The monkey! I brought the monkey with me to show you that …”
“Oh for heaven’s sake. Again with this monkey?”
“Yes. Here it is! I found it when I went to the lake and …” The monk turned around, pointing at the monkey. But there was no monkey in sight. The dread in him was so pungent, so strong, his sweat glands poured quickly turning his face and arms into a glistening figure.
“There is no monkey here.”
The exhausted and irritated voice of the tall monk at the door was so sharp, it perforated through the air and into the night.
“He was just right there …” It was only a whisper.
“He? It’s a male now?”
“Yes. He was, and…”
“Please. Enough with this. It doesn’t matter what happened. It really doesn’t. Come in. You must be tired from the heat.” The front door was opened further and the second monk appeared, much shorter than the first one, but equally indignant.
“I can’t believe this. I brought him back. He was right behind me. He was! I swear!”
“Oh my God. Please, don’t swear. It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter, to me.”
The monk was furious and tired of his own story. He couldn’t explain to them why it was so important for him that they understand. One way or another, he was going to capture the monkey from the wild trees it inhabited in, and bring it back to the cabin, this time perhaps using a little more wit than just walking a safe distance in front of him. One way or another, it was going to happen.
For now, the monk entered the cabin, his head bowed in disgrace.
“I must be tired,” he said as he was walking in. The inside was warm and familiar, and as the monks nodded in agreement, he noticed that the tingling sensation had long gone from his feet and hands, and left him utterly alone. He was a hermit monk who had dedicated all of his life to service and prayer, he was a man who embraced the isolated nature of his calling and loved every bit of it as long as he lived. And though he had outlived many of his relatives, including both his parents and unrelenting siblings, uncles and aunts, he had never doubted the sanctity of his calling, nor had he found himself in a situation that would require him to swear to his fellow monks or anybody else. And as age approached fast and unforgiving, he was still able to keep his optimistic persona intact and indelible, devoting more and more time to prayer, ignoring the increasingly alarming signs of old age and symptoms of his rheumatisms. He was a man created for the sole purpose of being isolated, for the noble purpose of praying for the sins of others, a man designed from his early life to lead a more honorable vocation. It was more than a calling; it was who he was, the core of his identity depended on the days and nights he spent praying, praising God, wiping tears of joy and tears of sadness, asking his Lord to forgive others for their erroneous ways. He was, by design, propelled to humbleness and servitude, and he found solace in the melancholic days filled with solitude and peace. Solitude is what he knew, what he grew up into, what he aged into, what he longed for when others were around him. He could be in a room full of people – whether it was his family or his fellow friars – and he could still transport his mind to an isolated place, perhaps on the banks of the river or the lake, behind voluminous trees and under the shy coating of summer stars, where he would take rest, find his way to God, to peace, and more light. Though humble in everything he did, he was still a master in isolating himself from the rest of the living, breathing world.
And on that night, for the very first time, a man who was designed to embrace and live in solitude felt alone. It was alienating, sour, too gripping, taking his ability to breathe and think properly. He had never felt alone before.
The second and taller monk is asked to recount a story about his fellow menekuse. He doesn’t flinch or hesitate, nor does he smile a toothless smile. Instead, he gazes upon the sky, where the flashed contours of feathery clouds are making their way downhill.
He stares at them until he is asked again, politely.
He says he will tell a story about the monk, but only through another story.
Of course, he is as notorious for avoiding direct questioning as he is for his refined palate. But he is allowed to do so nonetheless.
“I will tell you a story,” he begins, “And you can see for yourself the kind of man he is. Surely, I assume everyone at some point had a similar experience with him. He is a man of God, first and foremost, and God created us all different, humans and animals, trees and bodies of water. You can’t question God why He made you the way He did; the answer always is, because it pleases Him. And we are to accept it and embrace who we are, exactly what we’re made of, even if that means that sometimes we have to go against others in doing so. It is in this very small act that a miracle begins. Do you understand?”
Not completely, but let’s see where it goes.
“I heard this story from the monk himself, or was it someone else? I can’t recall. But it doesn’t matter where it came from. The story goes: once two men were looking for a lost key. The first man looked everywhere: under the bed, in his clothes, outside in his garden, and he couldn’t find it. He kept searching for the key for a long time and still couldn’t think of a place where it would be. So he came to the second man, who had been searching for it too. Together, they decided to look for the key in a place that was dark and poorly lit. The first man bent down on his knees and started searching the floor, tapping the surface with his hands to see if they key had fallen there. But the second man insisted that it wouldn’t be there; besides, it was dark and poorly lit, and they would never find it like that. The first man agreed and proposed to light a lantern or a torch so they could see clearly. But the second man wouldn’t listen to him. He insisted again and again that the key would not be found there. Finally, he was able to convince the first man to go with him, and search for the key somewhere else, a place that was so lit, it was almost blinding. In that place, everything stood in clear view, hence it was easier for them to look for the key there. So they both went down on their knees and started looking for the key. The first man asked the second man, ‘Why are we looking for the key here?’ And the second one replied, ‘Because it is well lit here.’ The first man was puzzled and asked, ‘Did you lose your key here?’ and the second man replied, ‘No, I didn’t. But I’m sure we’ll find it because we can see here.’ The second man sounded so confident, so certain that he had not lost his key there, and yet the arrogance and simplicity of his action spoke out loud: he was looking for the key in the wrong place, wasn’t he now?”
He pauses to let the story sink in.
It is sensed that the story about the lost key must have something to do with the monk. Perhaps it was a story about the monk himself, and he was the second man? It is inquired if it was so.
“I’m simply telling you a story I heard. It is up to you to decipher its meaning. Besides, I would never speak ill of the monk, or anyone else. What would that make me?”
He is asking the questions now.
“That would make me terribly wrong.”
And with that, he walks away, and as he does, the air shifts and repositions itself cautiously, as he is majestic in his stature as he is in his wise spirit.
In the days that followed the incident at the lake, the monk was unusually quiet. Being lonely had left him shaken, creating scars all over his body, and as he woke up every morning at four o’clock, he could feel it, mixed with his rheumatism, a pinching and pervading sensation that spread quickly and deeply into his bones, making him gasp of pain. Though he had promised himself and the other monks that he would stay away from the monkey, or other animals in general, he did wish for the monkey to come back to his cabin’s door like it did the first time, and he would open the door slowly, and perhaps bring food for the animal, and water, and anything else he could have done to keep it indoors. It wasn’t about showing the other monks that the monkey actually existed; it wasn’t about them believing him anymore. As disappointing as it was, at that point, it was mostly about persuading himself that he had indeed experienced those incidents with the monkey. He knew he did, of course, and the marks on his body were there to show just that. But the monk was also getting other scars, and the cavities that formed themselves in his palms and feet weren’t helping him in understanding what was happening, and he feared that he wouldn’t be able to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t. It was a terrible feeling to have, not being able to distinguish the truth for what it was.
Nonetheless, the monk never stopped looking for the monkey, secretly hoping it would come back to him. He knew there was something there, something he couldn’t quite articulate, or say out loud for that matter. But there was something, a frail bond that was established between them. After all – and this is assuming the monkey was real, the animal had sought him and not the other way around. The monk waited for a few days, unable to sleep most nights because of the tingling sensation bubbling in his palms and feet, but mostly thinking about the monkey, and sometimes about the hippopotamus, how it seemed so at peace as it walked past him, having heard his sprinkling laughter and yet, not bothered enough to see him, to actually look at his tired face and weary body, only hearing the everlasting laughter that had caused the monk to laugh out loud. He spent entire nights touching his fingers, then his toes, then his fingers again, touching the rough surface of skin folded upon skin, trying to find a plausible cause for what was happening to him. The laughter, and the staunch odor of the bleeding came when he was most unprepared: when he was getting ready to sleep, as he was bathing or cleaning, and typically, in the midst of his most intimate prayers. It took him by surprise, when no one else was around, when he thought he was alone and it was so quiet he could hear the calm rumbling of the lake as it sputtered a portion of its greenest water into the birth of the river. Once the laughter had exploded from his insides when he was in the company of other monks, enclosed in the stone-hinged spaces of the church in the peninsula, and he ran away so fast into the voracious mouth of the forest, they thought he must have been sick. He was, of course; and in so many ways, he wasn’t. He even attempted to address the issue in his prayers, imploring God to forgive him for being so self-involved, for wanting to know more about what was happening to him, for the unjustified curiosity that awakened him every morning with the thought of a new beginning, a new encounter with the monkey.
And it did happen. Shortly after the incident at the lake, when the monk was busy in the small garden behind the cabin, busying himself with hairy carrot heads and cleaning the dirt off the glistening bodies of small red onions that were dug up from under the earth. The laughter burst open from his mouth unexpectedly, even as he continued to clean the onions and gather the carrot heads on one side, even as he poured lake water over new plants and buried small seeds in a vertical line deep into the soil. He laughed as he was doing his chores, as the tickling sensation spread through his ligaments and bones and found rest in the cavities located in the mid-section of his palms and feet. He laughed even as he noticed the furry head of the vervet monkey hovering between the dug up holes in the mud, where the animal flipped itself upside down, then right side up, then stood tall like a man on his toes again, until it was bored. The animal did not make noise at first, but when it noticed the monk was ignoring him and going about his laughter as if the animal didn’t matter, the monkey started imitating him, emitting almost the exact same sound the monk was making – a soft, undulating, velvety sound that excited them both. The laughter of both was overwhelming; it filled up the skies, the plants, the fruits. It filled everywhere, between the hairs of the monkey’s fur, inside the wrap of the monk’s head, in the empty space of the garden, in the modestly furnished cabin. It filled the walls, the earth, it dampened dry leaves and the furtive eyes of wild animals, it coated the waters, the streams, even the lake.
It was everywhere – a hint of green and something radiant, in all its magnificence.
It was there even as the monk was rescued by his other companions, who had come to the back of the cabin after hearing the porous sound. It was there even as the monk stumbled on the vegetables he had gathered, and fell on his back, cracking his spinal cord and breaking his neck, it was there even as the monk kept laughing, louder than ever, as if nothing had happened to him. The hint, the greenness was kind to his eyes, soft to his soul, and it washed away the clouds of terror and dread that had accumulated themselves in the other monks’ presence, encouraging them to lift up the limp, broken body, warm still, and the laughter was most gregarious then, most serene, and though their companion was left only with his bleeding flesh, they couldn’t help themselves but smile, while placing the monk on the cabin’s floor, its walls unable to contain the intensity of such mystic sound. The hint was there all along, and the laughter, now coming into bundled tumultuous bits. It was getting harder and harder to breathe, and the monk said something, a mumbling of foreign words and melodious syllables, something about the monkey and the lake. The helplessness in the hands that lifted him from the garden, from the dirt, and placed him in the cabin’s kitchen, dissipated at once, and instead sought kindness, tenderness, empathy. And the laughter was still there; boisterous in its nature, exquisite in its undulation, inhabiting all corners of the monk’s body, from his abdomen to his legs and down his feet, from his bald spot to the sockets of his eyes and the wrinkled cheeks, the bony chest. The laughter stayed with him throughout, and it was delicious as warm honey and cold as fresh milk, it stayed even as the light appeared in front of his eyes, and it was so familiar and inviting, he wanted to reach it right away. It stayed when the tickling sensation in his palms and feet persisted, when the blood had long fallen and dried up. The monks had draped his body with drops of holy water and unfurled hot murmurs of prayer, and it stayed when his eyes suddenly gave in, their moist whiteness a bit receded.
His companion monks swore they heard the laughter continue even when he was long gone; long after his body was lifeless, they swore the laughter stayed with warmth and a hint of greenness. And beyond all, they recalled seeing the palms and feet of their companion rise up from his stiffened body, revealing the soft cavities in the middle. But what they were most fascinated by, above all things, was what happened next: a soft furred vervet monkey appeared, and it was quiet and its eyes were moist and filled with sorrow as a man’s, and it sat on the edge of the windowsill with its long tail hanging off the wall. The monks swore its sound turned into a wail, as if it was suddenly grief-stricken.
But that’s not how the monk would be remembered for years to come; he would be remembered with a vervet monkey resting on his shoulders, both of them exploding in joyous laughter. That’s how he was remembered to have died: in merriment and in the presence of a vervet monkey.
Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet, visual artist and cultural activist. She grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Blast Furnace, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Cactus Heart Press, Mad Hatters Review, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine and is forthcoming from The Bitter Oleander Press, Diverse Voices Quarterly & Callaloo Literary Journal. Her short story “The River” received Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Press. You can find her here: http://mahtemshiferraw.com/
Tommy Pesic Pedersen was born in Oslo, Norway and is now based in Dubai. He is an airline pilot who flies a Boeing 777 for Emirates, and has a keen interest in nature and photography. Learn more about his hobbies at his UAE birding website; view more of his photography at Flickr.