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The Devil Rides Outside
"Le Diable Rôde Autour D'un Monastère"
By John Howard Griffin
Wings PressCopyright © 2010 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
THE CLOISTER WITHIN
"I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me; Bones .built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see The lost are like this, and their scourge to be As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse."
Gerard Manley Hopkins
"But no, M'sieu," the driver groans, "since our fine government closed the brothels it's impossible."
The taxi moves slowly past outlying houses, following its headlights in the narrow cobblestone road. The front seat is cramped, and I cross my legs uncomfortably.
"It's the same in Paris," I say regretfully, "but there they've simply gone into the streets."
A cold mist blows in the window. As I raise the glass I look out at a passing night landscape of dim lights scattered throughout the Valley.
"Tell me, M'sieu —" His voice falters.
The driver leans his heavy face forward over the steering wheel and with an effort turns on windshield wipers. "Not meaning to be personal. But the Monastery? You're going there for religious reasons? Maybe to become a —?"
"Lord, no," I interrupt flatly. "I'm going there to do some research."
"Ah, well, then," he says with sudden relieved loudness, and settles back into the seat. "I wondered, you know. You tell me to drive you to the Monastery and then you ask about girls. Couldn't quite make out the connection."
I laugh. "I guess it doesn't sound right, does it? Tell me, how are the monks?"
"Fine men, M'sieu. You'll like them. But," he chuckles after a moment, "it isn't there you'll find any young girls, eh?"
"I know. I'll just have to forget that for a while."
The driver puffs a cigarette hanging disconsolately from his lips. "Yes, the only thing our young men can do is keep themselves buttoned tight, M'sieu. Those damned sons-of-bitches in our government!" His voicechanges, becomes more expansive. "I know how it is. I'm not so old as all that. Why, it's a terrible thing for our boys. Look at yourself, M'sieu — a fine young man like you — what can you do? It's impossible." He mumbles to himself for a moment, cursing all governments; then, turning to me, "You're American aren't you? I can tell by the clothes. Did you have a girl in Paris?"
"How long you been with her?"
"Oh, a long time. Since before the war."
"You're going to miss her, eh? What's her name, M'sieu?" He lowers the window long enough to spit his cigarette out into the night.
"Her name's Lucette," I sigh, "and I'm missing her already."
"That's a nice name, for example," he says, and nudging me in the arm, "I'll bet she's with somebody else this very night."
"Wouldn't be surprised. How far is the Monastery from that little town back there?"
"About five kilometres, M'sieu. But I drive slow when these damned roads are slick. I put my last penny in this taxicab. You didn't expect to find a taxi in a little hole like this, did you?"
I lean back, resting my head on the back of the seat, and watch the play of headlights cutting darkness. The train trip has tired me. The driver talks incessantly, recalling his youthful adventures in Paris. He doesn't hesitate to admit that it was he, Salesky, who was instrumental in dotting this very countryside with attractively filled brothels until a stupidly misinformed government stepped in and ruined him. He explains with luminous pride how he personally, after having first explored each girl's potentialities to the fullest, saw to it that only the most interesting and accomplished of them stayed on to satisfy the needs of his clients.
"Nowhere, nowhere, M'sieu — not even in Paris — could you find such wonderful girls at such reasonable prices."
"Too bad I didn't come here sooner," I tell him.
I offer him another cigarette and he cranes his head in my direction. His face, reflected in the lights, is sober.
"Listen, my friend," he says urgingly, without taking the cigarette from his lips, "I know some girls in the City. Let me drive you there and we can each get one for the night."
"Wish I could," I answer, "but I spent nearly all my money on train fare here. I've only got a few francs left."
"Ah, that's too bad."
He turns into a narrow street. Headlights pass across the tightly shuttered windows and doors of many small houses lining the sidewalks. Salesky taps me lightly on the knee as the bright beams again pick up the street before us.
"That's really too bad, my friend. In any case, I'll look out for you. If a nice girl comes to Town, I'll get her a hotel room and come for you. And," he adds with great friendliness, "I won't charge you a thing."
"Fine. After a week or so in the Monastery I'll probably be desperate."
"Naturally, M'sieu, naturally — you're young. It's the same with me, though I'm much older than you. But I trained my muscles well as a young man. You wouldn't guess me nearly sixty, would you?"
The car slows into a cobblestone square and pulls up before a high stone wall. A feeble street lamp glistens in reflection from the wet stones, intensifying the blackness.
"Here we are, M'sieu. Two hundred francs. Call me any time. If it gets too impossible, just call Salesky, eh? I'll find you something, even if it's only a washroom hag."
I step from the car into the deserted square and he drives away in a shifting of gears. I look up at the wall beyond which I am to live for a time, and in the mist-veiled darkness I can't tell where the wall stops and where the sky begins. A heavy door is thrown into relief by the street lamp. Reluctantly I pull the bell chain and hear it ring somewhere within. Salesky's tail-lights disappear in a turning of the road. I stand here in the sudden silence and wait. And as I wait beside my suitcase, the mist becomes a light rain sifting flat level sound as it falls gently on the sleeping countryside. Wetness blows cold against my face, and I ring the bell again. It sounds harsh in the night. After a moment I hear approaching footsteps crunching. The door is opened by a black-robed monk who carries a lantern over his arm.
"Good evening, sir," I begin. "I'm expected, I believe. I am — —"
The faceless monk nods his head violently and places a finger to his lips to stop me. Taking my suitcase, he motions me to follow him. The door is closed noisily behind us and we walk through a gravelled courtyard. He walks with his head lowered against the rain, his lantern casting fantastic shadows about us. I am offended by his brusqueness, but I try to hide it. Peering through the darkness to dimly outlined buildings, I remark amicably, "This certainly is an impressive structure you've got here. How many of you live here?"
My words die in the muffling rain. He doesn't answer and I feel uncomfortable and foolish. I follow him up exposed stone steps, staying close to the wall to guard against falling, for there is no rail. The yellow light from his lantern catches the outline of a squat, doorless opening at the top, through which we stoop to enter. The floors and walls of the door-lined corridor beyond are of rough stone. There's no light except the flickering lantern over his arm. our shadows, magnified and distorted, flit beside us along the wall until we reach an open door, which he motions me, with a slight bow, to enter. The door is closed behind us, and a lamp is turned on to reveal a small cell. The monk's robes rustle loudly as he bends over to deposit his lantern on the floor, placing my suitcase on the rough green blankets of a cot.
"Now, my son," he says shortly, impersonally, pushing back the cowl of his robe from a head of thin grey hair, "we have put you immediately above the chapel. The only way out is the way we came. On this night table is a card with full instructions as to your activities here. I think it covers everything." His words sound memorised. "You have arrived during the Great Silence which begins at nine-thirty each night, a time during which speech is supposed to be forbidden. If you have any questions please make them as brief as possible." He says this without stiffness, looking at me intently.
"I guess I can find everything, sir. If you'll just tell me where the bathrooms are."
"Ah, yes." The ageing monk walks to the window and opens it, pointing out into the dark. "The water closets are in the courtyard., In the morning you will be able to see them from this window. But you are requested not to leave this cell after Compline. If you need it, there is a chamber pot to be used at night." He opens the door of the night table to show me the inevitable white porcelain chamber. "Let me see, the nearest water for shaving is downstairs to the left of the door. If you feel you can, we ask you to clean your cell every morning. Empty shaving water anywhere in the courtyard and water from the chamber pot into the toilets. Father Clément will visit you each day." He picks up his lamp and walks to the door, turning to bow slightly before leaving. "Good night, my son," he says with sudden gentleness. "May you find happiness here and may God give you peace."
The door clicks shut behind him. Without moving I listen until the sound of his heavy footsteps dies to silence in the corridor outside.
After a time the wind blows in heavy drops of rain, chilling the cell. I turn away to close the window left open by the monk. No light, no flickering of light anywhere out there. In this maze of stone corridors and doors, nothing but my lamp burns at this late hour, weak in its nocturnal clawings against darkness. There are only the steadily falling rain, the terrible silence, and the knowledge that others sleep in other cells. Desolation of paralysing loneliness, skeletal, as each passing moment brings thirsts for sounds and lights and noises left only a few hours ago. I must move about, light a cigarette, unpack the suitcase, do small things. The cell is cold and cheerless and smells of damp and mould and age. Unpack the suitcase. Blueness of pyjamas, whiteness of underwear. The rain striking my window and running down, and from the corner of my eye, above the cot, the sheen of a carved-wood crucifix. White shirts neatly folded, and handkerchiefs and fresh green soap and rough towels. In Paris this morning, the kiss in the railroad station like all other kisses that follow woman's pleading for man to stay with her. Brown leather shaving kit and socks tied together in pairs with white string. Lips seen close with their fine ridges and their wetness, and the feel of a belly against your belly, of a belly beneath your mouth — moving, live, warm. Silence growing in the cold of these cells. I open the door into the blackness of the corridor and hear nothing. The door is thick, worm-pitted grey wood. I close it and continue unpacking.
Smoke from my cigarette curls floating on the air. I flick a safety-pin from the brown satiny lining of my suitcase. I cough and the cough sounds loud and heavy on the silence. I look at the straw mattress of my cot and at its covering roughness of blanket, and I remember the good bed and white linens of last night, and how they covered a nakedness of breasts and navel and warm thighs, and smooth, sweet-smelling flesh of shoulder and back. And I am sick for wanting the safety of that bed, for wanting to breathe the breath of another and to wake in the night and feel her against me.
But it's time to sleep. I unlace shoes and put them to one side. They sleep in other cells; they sleep in their cots and never know the taste of another's pleasure. Socks are placed in the shoes. The stone floor is cold beneath my bare feet. With a dampened washcloth I rub caked dust from my ankles. Since there's no ash-tray I crush the cigarette in the chamber pot.
I must swallow the night's desolation in small things. Tie and coat and shirt are removed slowly. The cell is small. It won't be difficult to clean. Undo the belt and step from the pants. It's a small cell with walls long since discoloured and mottled with the dampness of countless winters. Fold the pants and put them over a chair. On the wash-stand a large carafe of water has been placed in a badly chipped porcelain bowl. Next to this on the marble table top is a soap-dish in which there's no soap, and to one side, a towel rack on which there's no towel. Drop wrinkled white underclothing to the floor and reach for the blueness of pyjamas. There is the night table with its lamp of small voltage and weather-spotted lamp-shade. There are some books and the placard of instructions.
In the droning silence I sit on my bed and light another cigarette, hearing the match strike with hollow loudness. The instruction card must be read. It is hand-printed in ink, with a shaky cross at the top, and it tells what I must do and where I must be at all times — from the first bells at four in the morning until the last bells at nine-thirty at night. It informs me that I must follow the rigid schedule of the Benedictines, and that I must neither do nor say anything that might provide a disturbing element or distract the monks from their work. And many other things.
Thunderless night of monotonous rain and of insomnias of newness and loneliness. I think of how her hair caressed my cheek and of how warmly she filled my arms with her sleeping nakedness. I think of the jovial face of Salesky and of his world which is my world and which lies out there in the night somewhere, separated from me by the high walls of this Monastery.
Crafty, diluted light in my cell. Nausea of sleeping alone.
Sometime in the night I awaken and reach for covers which aren't there. In a half-dream I feel for the crease of her belly and find only the unyielding stiffness of evil-smelling straw beneath the rough muslin mattress cover. Sleep is a torture of discomfort.
I force myself from the cot. It is cold and my legs tremble as I feel about in obscurity for my shoes. It is dark as night. I turn on the dismal lamp. Sounds from below of chanting. I am late, my card informs me, for the early morning offices of Matins and Lauds.
The water in my bowl is covered with dust, darkening at the sides from last night's washing. I pour more water from the pitcher, watching it catch amber reflections from the lamplight. Sober, ascetic sight of water being poured into a white bowl.
My footsteps sound heavy in the gravel as I walk in the direction of the chanting. The air is chilled and clear after the night's rains and there is no hint in the sky that it's near dawn. An almost imperceptible light is filtered through leaded stained-glass windows on to bushes beside my path.
Cold morning before sunrise, and I almost fall from sleep sitting in the faintly lighted chapel. Impression of spaces and heights and heavy grey shadows in the vast interior. Sounds reverberate empty and the monks seem far away. Hours of praying and chanting and praying. Unbearable dragging of time before breakfast. The bench grows hard. I am the only visitor in the chapel as monks sing their morning prayers. This morning there has been no waking slowly, no smells of coffee, no sleep-drugged belly beside me.
I wait for a long time in a sort of waking sleep, hearing nothing, until the hours have passed and it's time to leave. I follow the monks into a door marked REFECTORY, where breakfast is served on long polished tables. We are given large bowls of coffee which tastes as if it were made of ground acorn shells. It has a sickening flavour, a bitter-sweetness, that makes one cup enough.
Outside I find the bathrooms — many wooden doors in a rambling stone building, surrounded by hedges for privacy. I enter the first door into a clean little cubicle, where I find a sheaf of newspapers cut in six-inch squares nailed to the wall beside the seat. And above it a sign asks us to please conserve paper: nothing is plentiful in a post-war France. As I turn to leave I notice another sign tacked to the door. It is timidly printed in blue Gothic letters:
Please leave this place as clean as
You would hope to find it on entering
Leaving the place as clean as I should hope to find it on entering, I walk through an avenue of arched cloisters to the stairs leading back to my cell. No one has spoken to me.
There is a cool October sun of early morning. The Monastery rises high above the countryside, like some massive pre-Gothic fortress of stone.
Excerpted from The Devil Rides Outside by John Howard Griffin. Copyright © 2010 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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