by Alex Myers
At first Clara didn’t notice the monks. There were other things to occupy her: unpacking the boxes, setting up the apartment, going to appointments with her new obstetrician, helping Brad get established in his job. So many little things that by the time she was settling into her home office, which was really the second bedroom and only temporarily her office, just until the baby came, it was late autumn and she felt like she had hardly gotten her bearings in the new neighborhood.
But then, on a morning after she’d sent Brad off to give his lectures in applied math, when the apartment was her own and the baby wasn’t kicking away at her insides, on what was turning out to be a typically gray Boston day, she was studying the increasingly bare limbs outside her windows. They had shed their leaves back in early October, and as she recalled the last flash of brilliance, which seemed already like a distant memory, a bit of motion caught her eye. She saw one. Right there below her window. A monk.
The man below her was wearing a robe, but it hung from him like a long winter coat, no rope sash, no slightly ominous hood. From four stories up, Clara studied him as best she could, his full head of brown hair—no, what did you call it? tonsure to mark his vocation—the edges of his white shoes—could they be sneakers?—poking out from beneath his robe with every step he took. Actually, he didn’t look that much like a monk and she didn’t really know what a monk should look like, not in this day and age, at least, but she knew that was what he was. She knew it in the same way that she had known she would marry Brad after their second date, with a feeling that was comfort mixed with slight resentment or resignation: this is it. She stretched her back, one hand on her spine, one hand on the taut skin of her stomach, and watched the man cross the courtyard beneath her.
The courtyard was a rectangle, bounded on one side by the church with its modest little bell tower, which was where the monk had entered from, on two sides by a high stone wall, and on the last side, the side directly opposite her apartment, by a long, low building with whitewashed walls. The white of the walls struck Clara as Mediterranean, the sort of wall one saw set against an azure sea with red roof tiles above. Here the white stucco below a gray slate roof seemed at odds with the neighboring clapboard houses and bland New England sky. From above, her perspective skewed, it was hard to tell how large the courtyard really was: several concrete paths crisscrossed the grass, a few bushes were organized in little square plots. She could not see into the corners or around to the other side of the buildings. The monk had disappeared into the white building and now the courtyard was empty. Clara thought it was peculiar, having monks as neighbors in this day and age. Maybe she was being silly; maybe the man was just the priest, or a member of the congregation. Even as she tried to convince herself otherwise, she grew more certain that he was a monk.
She stood at the window for a while, not wanting to go back to her computer, to the graphic design work that waited for her, some company logo for some company website to help them market God knows what. A monastery. When she thought of a monastery, she thought of a craggy mountainside, a stone fortress-like structure populated by hair shirt-wearing penitents. She didn’t picture her next-door neighbors. But she supposed that if you were really a monk, any place would do: the middle of a city was as good as a cave in the desert. Just like being pregnant in a home office that was soon to be your baby’s nursery was as good as having a cubicle in a downtown office; she was still a graphic designer. She was still the same person, wasn’t she? No, she thought, who you were changed; it happened in discrete moments: becoming a monk like becoming a wife or becoming a mother. Something lost, something gained. It comforted her to know they were down there, going on about lives that meant something, that had a higher purpose beyond her reach.
Within a few hours, she had wrapped up the day’s work and it was still a while before Brad would come home and the fleeting autumn light would fade. So, with one last glance out the window, assuring herself that the courtyard below was empty (she realized that she had probably looked at it before and it had always been empty—what luck that she had happened to glance out this morning when there was someone in it) Clara put on her coat and went out for a walk. She turned left along the cement sidewalk in front of their building. There was a brief patch of urban grass—ill-tended and unusable—and then a high stone wall reaching far above her head, behind which, she was now aware, the monks must live. She’d noticed the wall before of course, and the church to which it was attached, but she’d never given them much attention. Such things were the background, the wallpaper of life, like mailboxes and streetlights: easily overlooked until you had a letter to send or needed some illumination. The church was small, its roof capped with a modest steeple, its stone front merging seamlessly with the wall. Clara walked to the front door, where a small wooden sign read “The Brothers of Saint Gerard.” No times for services, no other marks of identity or purpose, but also no forbidding statement denying entrance. She pushed the latch of the door, tugged, shoved, nothing. Odd. She tried again without success. Shouldn’t churches always be open? Shouldn’t they be available to offer sanctuary to those who needed it? Or was that just some lost fact she remembered from a Medieval history course, some hopelessly outdated and probably inaccurate view of the Middle Ages, which had just been full of violence and bloodshed? She gave the door one more push and then, worried that she’d attract attention from within or without, she moved on, walking down the block through the streets of clapboard multifamily houses, the brick elementary school, all the mundane, expected edifices of neighborhood life, no high walls hiding mysterious monks, just the river, glinting with orange light, sparkling in the distance whenever there was a gap in the houses.
She had reached the point in her pregnancy when her status was obvious, unable to be hidden even with an overcoat. And as she walked, she endured the smiles from other women, the looks that she told herself were meant to be warm, but that felt pitying or, at best, commiserating. She did not smile back. With every step, she thought, this is not my body, mine is some other body, these people do not know me. And all she could think was that she no longer knew herself. Locked within this pregnancy, she had become an expectant mother, nothing more, invisible except for this single fact, reduced to a potential outcome, her purpose, her being, melted down to this one point.
That evening at dinner, Clara thought of asking Brad about the monks. He was well-read and might know something about them. She watched him eating as they sat across from each other, the regular silence between them. There was something comforting about Brad, the normality of him: average height, average weight, brown hair, the fact that he had known he was going to be a mathematician since he was in third grade. Clara hadn’t ever known what she was going to be; the future became the present in a way that seemed inevitable but not fully in her control, like this pregnancy. It would take its own course. Brad looked at her now and then, folding his face into a little smile. After eating, they washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen up, and Brad talked about what he had to do tonight and tomorrow to get ready for his next lecture. Clara listened, waiting for a pause, a break in the conversation when she could ask a question about the monks, some short comment, but they just didn’t seem to fit into his world of math and meetings.
Over the next few weeks, Clara outgrew the last piece of her own clothing, a pair of pants she’d bought to do yoga that were roomy, with a draw string waist. Now she was into Brad’s old workout clothes, his sweat pants and pullovers. She knew some women bought maternity wear, but she didn’t see the point; she was home all day and there was no need to dress up. She had to roll up the legs and arms of the sweat suits, which made her feel like a little kid with hand-me-down clothes. She had stopped looking at herself in the mirror regularly, but she knew how she appeared by the expression on Brad’s face, like he was holding back laughter, like he wasn’t sure what he was really looking at. She didn’t want to look in the mirror; she was sure she wouldn’t recognize herself.
But she did watch the monks. There were several of them, four or five at least. They walked their little churchyard with some frequency if not with perfect regularity. One was bald, one white-haired and fat, the others indistinguishably brown-haired and hence hard to number. This bothered her, and eventually she spent a morning after Brad had gone to work rummaging through a closet looking for binoculars. With the binoculars, everything became much clearer—the thoughtful looks on the monks’ faces, not relaxed, just pensive. Their pale, clean-shaven cheeks, their mouths that never moved—and she found herself inventing: they had taken vows of silence, or they spoke only to pray, or they used their walks in the churchyard to listen carefully, but to what? The sounds of the city, cars rushing past, or some inner voice? Clara paced back and forth in the study, slowly. She couldn’t sit for too long or her back hurt and walking a little helped. Her observations revealed how little she knew about monks, what they might do and why. The more she watched them, the stranger it seemed that they should be in the city: they never seemed to venture out, or at least she never saw the door to the street open. And if they didn’t go out, then what did it matter where they were? Wouldn’t they be happier on a mountain top, some place that seemed more conducive to prayer? She rubbed her back, then her stomach, and a tiny knee or elbow poked at her, once, twice. She wanted to tell it to stop, but knew it didn’t matter, the baby wouldn’t listen; she couldn’t control it.
By mid-November, she began to resent weekends when Brad was home all day—the way he wanted her to sit with him on the couch to watch a movie, or go for walks along the river. “You can’t have that much work to do,” he’d say when she tried to retreat to her study. And he’d coax her out, away from her monks, so that they could go grocery shopping or look at cribs.
Brad was always talking about transformation: where they’d put the new furniture, how the baby would change their daily routines. He came into her study to measure things—the space between the door and the closet, the height of the ceiling, and Clara watched him carefully to see if he’d look out the window, if he’d notice anything. Once, on a Saturday, when he was carrying in the boxed crib set, she realized she had even left the binoculars sitting on the windowsill, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t think anything of it, he was so preoccupied with when he would assemble the crib and where it would go. She nodded at him, not really listening. He was in the future, somewhere together with the unborn child. But she was here, alone for a little while longer. Alone except for the monks, and the monks were hers.
As it grew colder outside, Clara began to worry that the monks wouldn’t walk around as much, that she wouldn’t see them all winter. But they kept coming out, walking the paths between the squares of dead grass. Sometimes they wore winter hats, navy blue, and this made it hard to tell who was who, except for the fat one, who was easy to pick out. The bell in the church tower never rang. The front door never opened, not even on Sundays. The windows in the low, white building gave her nothing—flat blackness or at most a reflection of the grass in front of them. Many times, she’d tried to walk around the other side of the church; it too was bordered by a high stone wall. There was one gate, big and wooden, painted dark brown. There was a small intercom by the gate with a little button. She wondered who they let in. They must get deliveries of food, or maybe visitors—would a monk’s family come to see him, or did he renounce the world? If their apartment were only on that side she could really tell what went on—that side, invisible behind the wall, obscured from even her bird’s eye view by the slant of the church roof, that side must hold all the secrets.
One night, they had some of Brad’s department over for dinner. They were a good bunch, three thirty-something bachelors, and Clara suspected that at some other, earlier time of her life she might have liked them very much, their sarcasm and quick wit, the way they made reference to books and theories in an unabashedly intellectual but not arrogant manner. But that night she could not immerse herself in their banter. She felt like she was floating off within herself, as if the conversation were gentle waves and she was sitting on the beach; they were some other element, in contact but separate. She wondered if it was a function of being the only woman in the room, or if it was her being pregnant. She often felt that her pregnancy marked her, made her stand out, as if people knew something about her that she normally tried to keep secret, but also made her oddly untouchable. Maybe it was her sore feet or the fact that she was the only sober one among them, not that they were heavy drinkers, but it seemed like so long since she’d had a drink that as she watched them lighten up, laugh easily, she felt as if they were slipping off to a foreign country, leaving her far away, speaking a different language she was unable to follow. She cleared their dishes and stood for a while in the kitchen, where the laughter and conversation were still quite audible. She let the water run over the dishes, washing away the details of their voices too, and as she stood there, she realized how much she had come to value silence and, realizing this, she felt a spark of kindredness between herself and the monks, a moment of understanding. All the hours of watching them from her window as they moved beneath her, silent as ghosts, she hadn’t realized how much she envied them; their private lives, their high walls, the way in which they were protected and contained, the way in which they were anonymous and unknown, observed only by her. She shut the water off, and the voices from the other room reemerged, reminding her that dinner wasn’t over yet.
When the guests left, it was late and Brad was clumsy as he tried to help her clean up, so she gladly pushed him towards the bedroom and took the apartment for herself. The dishwasher shushed in the background as she spooned the leftovers into little plastic tubs, crowded them into the fridge. Shutting off the lights in the kitchen, she went to her study and stood by the window, careful to position herself obliquely to it, so that it wouldn’t just reflect back at her. She gazed through, never-minding the opaque blackness outside. No lights at the monastery. Sometimes she wondered if anyone else watched the monks, if people in the apartment above her looked down and saw them—they might even have a better view than she did. But she thought not—no one watched the monks but her—they didn’t appear for just anyone. She looked down and tried to form a prayer. Deliver me, she thought, but from what? Just deliver me.
By the time she went into the bedroom, Brad was fast asleep. She sat on the edge of the bed and slipped off her shoes; she had long ago given up on laces, doubted whether she could even touch her toes. She thought about taking a shower, but in the bathroom there were mirrors and she’d have to look at herself; even if she tried not to, she’d have to, and she didn’t like to see herself anymore. When she did look at her reflection, it always came as a surprise: this can’t be me. So she skipped the shower and stretched out next to Brad, a still form in the dark. When they were first dating, or first sleeping together, they slept curled up, entangled, his knees pressed in behind hers, his arm around her waist. She couldn’t imagine that now, for pregnancy had drawn a circle, a prohibitive bubble around her, and she occupied this side of the bed all alone, inviolable. She lay, eyes open to the darkness, for a while, thinking of what it would be like when the baby arrived—she imagined a never-ending wailing, her mother and her mother-in-law bustling around the apartment trying to help, a profusion of plastic toys littering every surface. And she, she would be lost, subsumed beneath the role of mother, no space, no time, no self.
When her eyes closed, she dreamt that she was in front of the church. She reached her hand out and pressed the latch down. The door swung open, even though she hadn’t pushed, and she was inside. Dark and holy. That smell of old wood, pale incense, underuse. The pews, straight-backed and rigid, were empty, and she was disappointed: she wanted them here, she needed to know.
She glided up the aisle, through the waiting ranks of pews, past the altar—she saw all the trappings, the cross and the candles and the censers, and all those other things, books and boxes and cloth, for which she had no name, no sense of their purpose, except they were holy objects: in her waking life she had never encountered such things, wondered where her subconscious had found them. Past all this and out a small door to the churchyard, dusted with winter’s first snow which had yet to fall in the real world. She walked the paths she knew so well from above, now at ground level. They seemed longer down here, stretching out between bare-limbed bushes; the snow did not stick to the concrete, just melted away immediately, but it clung to the dead grass, frosted the surface around her. She walked to the white stucco building, low and luminous in the dark, as if imbued with natural phosphorescence. She opened the door, saw the long hall before her, as if she had known all along what was in here, the narrow beds all in a row, the cross above the head of each, the men sleeping beneath. She wanted to walk amongst them, to be the first woman to enter this room. She wanted to kneel beside each bed, feel each man’s animal warmth.
The dream lingered on into the next morning, a Sunday morning, and Clara wasn’t sure how to shake it. In the early winter light the apartment was gray. Brad sat in the living room, drinking coffee and reading the paper. Clara looked past him, out the window to the river. Runners filled the banks, neon jackets at odds with the monotone of the sky, water, grass. The baby kicked, rolled, and Clara put a hand on the spot where the contact had been. She could feel it stirring often now, like a churning, but not one of sickness, one of life, mixed-up, moving around, but no place to go. Brad smiled at her and then returned to his paper. She thought about asking him to go knock on the church door, sending him as a spy. Maybe they’d be more accepting of a man than of a woman. She couldn’t very well go in her pregnant body to ask them anything. She doubted they were receptive to women of any kind, but especially pregnant women. She’d seen Mary painted holding the baby Jesus but never pregnant with him. But maybe Brad would do it, maybe he could feign some interest in monasticism. The thought tickled her for a moment before she realized that she would have to share the monks with him, let him in on her secret. What would she tell him? “I’ve noticed these monks next door and I need you to find out about them for me.” She couldn’t explain it. She didn’t even know herself what she needed from them—some explanation of what they were doing there, here, in the midst of a modern city, life all around them, sirens wailing on the roads around them, jets overhead, families on Sunday strolls brushing up against their walls. How could they stay inside and keep their silence. And why? She drifted from the living room to her study. The crib was still in its box against the wall; Brad had said he would assemble it this weekend, but she hoped he wouldn’t get around to it. She didn’t think she could work, or watch, with a crib in the room.
Out the window, the courtyard was empty. No dusting of snow, no female footprints marking her passage last night. As if on cue, the bald monk stepped out. He wore a coat, black, over his robe, but no hat on his head. She could see his breath hanging foggy before him. He walked the outermost path along the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, as if cold or thoughtful, drawn deeply into himself. Clara leaned against the window and watched his slow walk. Then he looked up, not a casual glance, not a search of the sky for birds or weather or meaning, but a deliberate selective look: right at her. And suddenly she saw herself, here at the window, day after day, her stomach pushing ever further out, thinking she was observing them, but really they were watching her, studying her, claiming her as part of their world.