I learned Brother Tom’s secret within two minutes of our first meeting, in his cell. He told me outright, hoping, I suppose, to prevent awkwardness. I felt surprise and shame. You weren’t supposed to say that even if you thought it. In his position, he certainly wasn’t supposed to say it to a novice. Should I have to tell him that?
He shouldn’t even be in this place.
“The abbot sent me here for spiritual guidance,” I said.
“Yes, I know.”
Already self-conscious about my novitiate status, sitting on that backless oaken stool in Brother Tom’s cell I felt especially out of place. Brother Tom, who should have appeared the real intruder here, seemed perfectly comfortable. In my irritation I forgot my humility. “Have you told the abbot this?”
What was my responsibility? To report him? I had been sent for the counsel of an experienced older Brother who would help me negotiate this difficult path, the most important decision in my life. “What are you saying?”
“Maybe you’ll want to ask him to reassign you.”
I looked around at the door, thinking I’d heard someone. There was no one. “When did this happen?”
“About a year ago.”
“How? What were you doing?”
“Praying, actually,” he said. “All of a sudden I knew it was just words, words, words. I was all alone.”
So calm he was, waiting patiently for my question. “What did you do?”
He leaned back in the crude wooden chair, looked away at the little altar beside his cot and folded his arms. “I kept on praying. What else? I hoped I was wrong.”
What did I feel, hearing this? A young man stands at the altar and lifts his bride’s veil, and no one is behind it. I was eight months into my training and hadn’t been outside the abbey once. Days and nights blended in unpunctuated prayer, service, reading, and fasting. Even sleeping, swimming in dreams through the rabble and babble, I would burst gasping into the perfect darkness and stillness of my cell. I would light the lamp and utter prayers to bring things and sounds back into the world.
I couldn’t look at him. How could I get out of that room? How could I get reassigned without betraying Brother Tom? I had never questioned my own faith. My courage, certainly, and my ability to stick with this for a lifetime, but never the truth that brought me here. He hoped he was wrong, I thought. Is this what happens in here? When you’ve been a monk as long as Brother Tom, do you just go crazy? I stole a glance at him and he was looking sideways right back at me.
“But I don’t think I was wrong.”
Was he baiting me? What was I supposed to say? Then I saw he was smiling, just a little at one corner of his mouth, watching me struggle with this. He literally wiped the smile off his face and looked away.
“I know. It’s okay. I was just remembering something that happened when I was a kid.”
I didn’t answer, which he took as an invitation to go on.
“When my older sister was a teenager, of course she was really into the Big Bopper and that rockabilly stuff. Hel-loooo, bayyyy-by! You’re too young. There was a kind of trinity of teen rock stars who had just been killed in a plane crash, and the Big Bopper was one of them. You’ve heard of Buddy Holly? He was another one, and Ritchie Valens. Sandy and her friends would play their records and weep out loud together. I’m not kidding, they really did this.
“Well, I liked all those songs too. They were funny, and really better for kids like me than for teenagers. But for Sandy it was something more than just music.”
Brother Tom leaned forward, elbows on his knees, remembering. “One day one of those records was playing in her room. The door was closed, but I could tell what song it was. I’d heard it a lot. She had this automatic 45-rpm record player that you could load up with a stack of records. Or you could put on one record and it would play it over and over. It was doing that with ‘The Big Bopper and Little Red Riding Hood.’ The song would die out, there’d be a swish-swish-swish, clunk-clunk, pop, and then Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! A-lemme IN, honey! This is the Big Bopper knockin’! and the whole thing started again. That song played maybe fifteen or twenty times in a row.
“By that time I was ready for something else. But as I said, the door was closed, and it was not acceptable for a ten-year-old kid to bust into his older sister’s room. It was not done. She was a teenage girl. She was bigger than I was. She was fierce and territorial. The aura of awe around her privacy was more frightening the closer you got.
“On the other hand, there was the maddening predictability. The end of the song, then the clunk of the changer, and Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! A-lemme IN, honey! After a while I convinced myself I couldn’t take any more. This outrage seemed to transcend rank. I jumped up and walked out of my room and across the hall, banged on the door a couple of times, opened it, and stepped in with the words Can’t you play something else? already falling out of my mouth.
“The racket of that song, my own shouting anger, and the fear of my sister flying at me, wild red hair and teeth and nails, were all jangling so loud in my head when I stumbled into the room that I didn’t know for a second what was wrong. There was the howling record player, its tone arm rocking awkwardly like a tethered boat on the stormy undulations of that warped 45. I lifted the arm and switched the machine off.
“Perfect peace flowed back into the room and swallowed me. Sunlight slanted through beige lace curtains, warmed the fat particolor pastel quilt, and stirred a pixie dance of dust motes in the air over the bed. It was the only motion in the room.
“Sandy was nowhere! She must have been gone for an hour, or however long it takes to play a Big Bopper single about twenty times. She had started that machine on its mindless mission and wandered off to some other distraction, as teenage girls will.
“There I stood with a mouthful of righteous anger! Sandy’s mistake was long in the past, she wasn’t pushing me out of her room, she had no idea what I was suffering. She was gone!
“I couldn’t blame her. I couldn’t blame the Big Bopper. I couldn’t blame the unwritten rules that made her room a sanctuary. I wanted to tell Mom, but tell her what? I was mad at—what? Circumstances? The rules? Sandy?
“Then I saw it was just ridiculous. I laughed. I had a story to tell my friends. Big sisters! They make our lives hell! I went out and found Mom in the garden and told her the whole thing. I was laughing so hard, I guess it was contagious and she started laughing too. And then pretty soon she was really laughing. She was probably tired and needed a good laugh. The cosmic silliness of my frustration must have struck her so hard she howled and howled with tears running down her face.
“Her amusement far outflanked mine. I sobered up. Obviously she wasn’t laughing at the same thing I was. It wasn’t that funny. She was out of control… Was she laughing at me?
“ ‘Quit it,’ I said, experimentally, but she didn’t quit. I don’t think she could. She just kept hooting, shaking her head and holding her open hands out to me in protest. She didn’t want me to take it wrong! She gasped, looked at me closer, and her eyes got even wider, and she started howling louder than before. ‘I’m sorry!’ she said. ‘I’m sorry!’ —and then she just walked away and into the house.
“She had spoiled the fun. She scared me. I was mad, but that wasn’t all of it. I had been ready to laugh at myself, I guess, but not quite that hard. I went into my own room and shut the door. I sat in the gray dullness of that space, on the north side of the house where the sun didn’t reach. Nothing in there amused me. Probably nothing in the world could have amused me right then.
“I had no idea what had just happened. I felt like a fool. The whole scene had gone wrong at every turn. First I had allowed myself the luxury of outrage, probably not very sincere. I had rebelled against my sister’s presumed sovereignty and failed to make any impression on an empty room. I had discovered real amusement in the irony and experimented with self-mockery, but Mom had ruined that too. At the bottom of everything I felt like none of it was my fault. I had a right to be mad. I also had a right to find the situation ridiculous.
“Maybe I was trying to get back to that feeling, righteous anger and a clean sense of irony. Before I knew it I had crossed the hall again and sat down cross-legged on my sister’s bed.
“It really was a much nicer room than mine, sunnier and more colorful and decorated like somebody cared. It was everything my own room was not. My own room wasn’t even my own. I had to share it with my little brother. Here in Sandy’s room was solitude. The silence as I sat on that fat bedspread was so thick my ears rang. The sun warmed the back of my neck and I was aware of a faint smell of sachet or perfume or something very nice.
“By god I have a right to sit here, I thought lazily, not really sure, but not really caring either. The silence and the sunbeam had a good effect. I decided if I heard Sandy coming down the hall I wouldn’t budge. I’d brave it out. I stayed there with my hands in my lap and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my neck. I think maybe I was even waiting for her to come home. Time passed. The tumult in my head died out and a very calm, solid certainty took its place. All was settled. The outrage and irony and laughter had lost themselves, blended their energy into something like a mature consciousness of dignity.
“And of course eventually Sandy did come home. The front door slammed, coat hangers rattled and she whisked up the hall and stopped in the door of her room with a bag of potato chips in one hand, staring. She must have been too surprised at the violation to know how to react.
“ ‘What are you doing here?’
“ ‘Why are you in my room?’ Her mouth hung open.
“Why was I there? Right then the Big Bopper was the last thing on my mind. That was all over and done with. The fact is, this was the only place I felt like being right then.
“I closed my eyes. ‘It’s nice in here. I needed a quiet place to sit.’
“Several seconds went by and then I could tell she was moving toward me. But she walked right past me and set the bag of chips on her dresser. She turned and sat on the end of the bed next to me. ‘You’re not supposed to come in here unless I invite you.’
“Which was so obvious I just sat there, breathing slowly with my eyes still closed. She waited for me to say something, and meanwhile the silence and the peace and the sunlight must have started working on her too, because she decided not to be angry.
“ ‘You’re right. It is nice in here.’
“This was so unexpected it threw me off balance, like pushing against a door at the exact moment somebody on the other side pulls it open. I could have hugged her and kissed the fiery hair curling around her neck. Of course I just sat there, not daring to open my eyes, waiting for whatever would happen next. Nothing at all happened for a long time. I knew Sandy was looking right at the side of my face, working on something in her mind. My life was completely in her hands. More than my life, probably. She had a terrible power right then. Did she even know it? In a million years I could never have done something as audacious as she had just done. My barging into her room was insignificant compared to it. She had held our lives up to the light, peered at us with clear creative eyes, turned us around in her hand, and set us both down on another planet.
“The silence was unbearable. I think in another ten seconds I would have been ready to spill out my soul in a torrent of apology, but just in time she saved me.
“ ‘If you don’t break anything, or take anything, then it’s okay, as long as I’m not here.’ I didn’t answer. I didn’t even move. She reached over and messed up my hair and I kept my eyes shut tight. Abruptly the bed squeaked and shook as she stood and walked to the door. She turned and said, ‘If I’m here, though, you have to knock.’ And then she was gone.”
Gone. The word resonated as the silence grew. Brother Tom had been telling his story to the floor in front of him. Now he looked at me. His eyes were wet. “That was it,” he said. “We call each other ‘brother’ in here, and it means something. I think that day was when I started thinking of Sandy as my sister. She had carelessly thrown away something that must have been precious to her and inalienable, her prerogative as an older sister, and allowed me the use of her cell.
“I didn’t take advantage of the privilege very often while she was still living at home, before she went off to school. Maybe six or eight times in those few years. After that, I would go to the room whenever I needed it. Sandy left her things there and my parents just kept it as it was. I would go there when I needed to get away from the noise, or shut down the noise inside me.
“A few times, in those first few years, she’d start to walk in and see me there, and she’d turn on her heel and leave me alone. I never asked to come in when she was there. I imagine that suited her okay.”
Okay. Another, even longer, growing silence. I sat turning Brother Tom’s story over in my mind, trying to frame a question. He sat up straight, rubbed his eyes, and looked around the room. Absentmindedly his right hand slipped into the pocket of his cowl.
“I never told any of my friends about that after all. I never mentioned it to anybody until now.”
He stood and stretched. “Well, better get back to your cell. We have to be up again before long.” He followed me to the door, keeping me moving with a gentle left hand on my shoulder. The other hand was already fingering the rosary in his pocket.
“See you at matins,” he said.