Text Copyright John Sundman 2008
Illustrations Copyright 2008 by Cheeseburger Brown
In the Common Room adjoining the dining hall sacred to the memory of Saint Asclepiades of Albany, the only such hall in the entire monastery whose kitchen was still in use, Mr. Norman Lux, nSF, sat in distracted conversation with his fellow novitiates—Mssrs. Chen, Agnolli, LaFont, and Powers—after the evening meal of sorghum porridge and dried, bony fish. This was the only time of day when willful speaking was allowed to the five novitiates of the Society of Fred. At all other times when within these walls, Mr. Lux and his four colleagues were obligated, by their vows, to speak only when spoken to by an ecclesiastical superior—and even then only in order to directly answer questions.
Although he was not a naturally gregarious fellow, Mr. Lux usually looked forward to and enjoyed the hour of free speech and relaxation that followed the last repast of the day. The very setting of the Common Room was sensually indulgent in comparison to virtually all other aspects of Saint Reinhold’s. There were easy chairs here, leather-covered and comfortable. Bookshelves lined the walls, and the books that populated them were books from the World, not monastic treatises. The windows were broad—made of clear, not stained, glass—and they offered generous views of the lower levels of the monastery and the lands below: suburbia, fields, farms, and Lake Venzig. After a day spent kneeling in silent prayer on hard stones in cold, spare rooms, or studying difficult texts without the chance to ask a classmate if he understood them; after preparing the meal in a centuries-old kitchen and washing pans with cold water using lye soap and elbow grease, what luxury it was to sit in an comfortable chair and merely converse.
But Mr. Lux was uneasy tonight and did not want to converse.
Across the room, in front of a darkening window, the preposterously handsome Guillaume LaFont, an ex-NFL cornerback and Freemerican, who had given up his professional football career when he received his vocation, was whispering with the boyish, giggly Lance Powers. Powers, an effeminate Oceanian, spoke the King’s English with a pronounced stammer and a hint of a lisp.
Closer by, to Norman’s right, Ralph Waldo Chen, the earnest Aristotelian from Hong Kong, was attempting a joke about the Party, while Franco Agnolli, the young mathematician from Milan whose noosifix was an ornate demonstration of some obscure point in knot theory, stared at him uncomprehendingly. Mr. Lux felt that he should help Mr. Chen extricate himself, explain the joke. But instead he sat motionless, watching himself watching, seemingly powerless to exert himself, even to perform an act of social mercy. Norman Lux was thinking about pain.
Pain of a stubbed toe. Pain of an abscessed, cracked tooth, broken with a hammer, its nerve hanging in the air. Pain of a bullet in the belly. Pain of a spike in an eardrum, a rusty spike, causing tetanus of the brain. The discomfort of a liver being eaten by a ringworm. The sensation caused by putting a hand on an electric burner. Cold pain of subzero air searing the lungs on each inhalation. Psychic pain: loneliness, regret, remorse, guilt, longing. Pangs of hunger. Hypoglycemia. Insulin shock. Dread, nausea, the horror you feel when you realize that in your drunkenness you have run over a child, a child who now dies in your arms, you feel the child’s pain until the moment that her ghastly wounds kill her and her soul floats to God, her body convulsing in a death rattle . . .
He was thinking about this pain, he tried to convince himself. He was not actually feeling it; it was merely an abstraction. And he did manage to convince himself that he was not actually in pain, despite the evidence of his own senses. That is, until Mr. Chen’s lame joke, despite Mr. Lux’s attempts to not hear it, became unbearable.
“Damn it!” Mr Lux bellowed from his chair. “The Party is not a game, Mr. Chen. It is not a joking matter. Our contest is not a horse race. The Party is a pathogen that sent my Nancy to the bottom of the Sea of Kentucky. Why has she gone? Lost! Lost in this mindless, endless war. War, Mr. Chen! Did you not hear the sirens today? Tornadoes! Six young children drowned in Lake Venzig! Can you not feel the cries of the parents? Drowning!”
Mr. Lux was aware that he was acting inappropriately, yelling, not making sense. But the words were not so much being spoken by him as being expelled; he had no control of them, everything hurt so much . . .
He felt an invisible noose tightening around his neck. The pain was excruciating, and a soul, somewhere, was on the cusp of corruption. Mr. Norman Lux was going to die. Everything was becoming black. Then, just before he passed out, miraculously all discomfort ceased, just as it had when the bed collapsed in his cell, and he felt the easy chair enveloping him like the loving arms of his beloved Nancy. He felt her arms around him, her hands pressing the front of his trousers. A song was playing somewhere:
Good morning, Starshine, the Earth bids you hello
You twinkle above us, we twinkle below
Gibby-gloop-gloopy . . .
He awoke in his cell. A candle had been left burning on his table. By its markings he could see that it was near the middle of the night; soon it would be time for the Nocturne prayer.
But “soon” is a relative quality. The minutes slowed down, and Mr. Lux looked up from where he lay to the simple noosifix hanging from the nail in the wall above him, and set about in earnest to focus his being: to focus on the mystery of Fred. More time passed. He counted his breaths until he felt confident that he was awake, aware, and in a prayerful state. He contemplated the Story that had brought him here. He contemplated, with all the fervor he knew, the meaning of the suffering of the Man of Sorrows. He prayed: How, how, oh Fred, shall I make my way to Thee? But his prayers were histrionic, full of bathos—and even that critique was phony. He erased that thought, chastising himself for facile flim-flammery. He discarded his piety and tried again, praying for the courage to speak honestly to himself. More slowly still the moments passed. The candle stopped in its very flickering.
It was pointless. He was not a saint. He was only a man. A confused, young, lonely, horny man.
“Fred, in thy name,” he whispered.
Then quietly, guiltily, he sat up in his bed, patted his body to confirm that all its parts were there, in the right places, working painlessly. He was fine. But now he was going to do something to place his own soul at risk.
True, reading after the time of retirement was a small sin, hardly worth noting. In fact, that candle left burning in his room seemed to be almost inviting him, giving him permission. But Mr. Lux knew the rules, and he knew that rules were the essence of monastic life. What was the point of monastic life if one did not conform to its strictures? Nevertheless, he knew also what he had to do. By the dim flicker he crawled on his hands and knees to the corner behind the hallway door. His fingernails found the edge of the loose plank and he prised it up and set it aside, as if he were removing a scab from a wound. Gingerly he removed the leather-covered volume from the cavity beneath the floor and replaced the plank. Then, inhaling deeply, he stood and tip-toed to the study-table. He placed the book on the table on opened it to where he had left off, using the silk ribbon he had placed there.
Earthquakes, floods, August gales in February and March, tornadoes, shooting stars, giant waves washing away cities, locusts and rats, needle-nose grain-sucking birds darkening the skies, rainstorms in the deserts, droughts in the jungles, infestations of small bugs, lightning in clear skies where no rain is, mold, chaos, sorrow without cause, pain with no explanation . . .
With effort, Mr. Lux could translate the simply descriptive passages of the book. But the sections that truly interested him, those that dealt with the theological reasoning of the Painful Inquiry were quite beyond his ability. Ecclesiastical Latin took decades to master. But Mr. Lux was coming to doubt that he had decades. How would he ever understand what this book was trying to tell him?
“Shit,” he aspirated. “I’m no good.”
“Ironic that your name means ‘light,’” came the voice of Fr. Hessberg from the doorway, startling Mr. Lux nearly out of his wits.
“Ironic, Father?” Mr. Lux exclaimed, breathlessly. He jumped up, upsetting his chair as he turned to face the Old Man, at the same time trying unartfully to cover the ancient text with a more recent issue of Byte magazine. An unreasoning fear filled him, his heart rate had doubled, he could sense his blood rushing through his arteries.
“You are in the dark, my son.”
“Oh. Indeed, Father. I was reading, Father. I beg forgiveness.”
“In Latin, ‘lux’ means ‘light.’”
“Quite true, Father.”
“But Latin is a bit of a challenge for you, I suspect.”
“I do my best, Father.”
“I wonder if your classmates at University want to know how an electrical engineer can be content with monastic life. You don’t even study by electric light.”
“Indeed they do ask me that. That is, those few of my classmates who even notice my existence.”
“Maybe they think you’re a spy for Kron Borlak” Fr. Hessberg said, and chuckled.
“I am not so clever as that. And there is not much to spy upon in the Monastery of Saint Reinhold that would interest a foreign power,” Mr. Lux said, smiling weakly.
“Are you sure of that? Would the Eagle agree with you about that?”
“Well,” Mr. Lux began.
“Horatio liked to poke around in our old libraries. Quite skilled in the ancient languages, was he. A spy in the house of God, you might say.”
“Was he indeed, Father?” Lux muttered, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“A word of advice, young novitiate. If you intend to stay up reading past your bedtime, your attentions would be better served by reading the scriptures, or texts on the prayerful contemplation of holy icons.”
“Yes, Father Abbot.”
“An icon is a painted prayer. Do you believe in prayer, Mr. Lux?”
“Of course, Father.”
“You are a young man of many contradictions.”
“I . . . I don’t know how to respond to that observation, Father.”
“You can hide things from me, but you cannot hide anything from the eyes of God.”
Mr. Lux said nothing.
“After prayers, join me in my office. We have a stick to whittle, you and I.”
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