Sometimes it seems that I spend most of my time trying to explain things to people who do not want to understand. This may be more of that. My evenings are free once I have locked up the Youth Center. Maybe I should have written semi-free. I read whenever I can, the lives of good and decent men and women who sought God and found Him.
I am not like that—either I have never lost Him or I have never sought Him. When you read this, you can say which. I have already confessed many times, but I think someone ought to tell my story. I am no autobiographer, just the only one who knows it.
I was ten, I think, when my father and I moved to Cuba. The communists had lost power, and my father was going to run a casino in Havana. Some monks had reopened an old monastery outside the city, and they were trying to start a boarding school. After a few years, my father signed me up. I think he must have given the monastery fifty thousand or so, because nothing was said about payment in all the years I was there—nothing I remember.
A year seems like a lifetime at that age, so three or maybe four lifetimes passed before I went from being a student to being a novice in the order. You would think I would remember something like that better than I do. All that I recall is that the Novice Master called us together one day and explained that the abbot had given up the idea of a school. The parents who did not want their sons to enter the order would come and take them home.
Most of my friends left after that. My father did not come, so I became a novice.
I see I have gotten ahead of myself, which happens a lot whenever I try to talk in public. I should tell you first that up to then I had gone home for holidays. Not all of them but some, like Christmas, and for eight weeks in the summer, every summer until then.
After that, my father never came for me again. I talked to my confessor about it, and he explained that being a novice was different. My father could not come anymore. He could have written letters, but he never did.
It was still like going to school. I helped Brother Ignacio herd our pigs and weed the garden, and there were novenas and mass and vespers and whatnot. But we had always done those. We still had classes and grades and all that. Now I know the subjects we studied were just the ones various monks could teach, but they knew a lot and it was a pretty good education. Most of them were from Mexico and most of the kids from Cuba, so we spoke Spanish in the monastery. The kids’ Spanish was a little different, but not a whole lot. Mass was in Spanish at first, Latin later on.
A lot of what I learned there was languages. We did two at a time: Spanish and Latin for a year, French and English the next year, then Spanish and Latin again the year after. Like that. I had picked up quite a bit of Italian from my father and his friends, English was what we had spoken at my school in the States, and I had gotten a good bit of Spanish just living in Havana before I went to the monastery. So I did not do too badly. I was not anybody’s star pupil in languages, but I was not at the bottom of the class in any of them. Or even close to it.
Besides the languages we got a lot of theology, like you would expect, and liturgy, Bible studies, and so forth. I guess all of us thought we would be priests eventually, and maybe the monks did, too, or some did.
We took biology every year. We called it biology, but a whole lot of it was about sex. If we became priests as well as monks we would have to hear confessions. Some of them would be the confessions of other monks, but two or three of our priests went into Havana almost every Friday and Saturday to help out in various parishes, and one of the things they did was hear the confessions of the laity. Not just men, but women too. I used to daydream about having this beautiful woman come into the confessional and say, “I know it’s wrong to lust after a priest, Father, but I can’t help myself. It’s Father Chris. Every time I see him I want to tear off all my clothes.” One time I told my confessor about those daydreams, but he just laughed. I did not like it, and I like it even less now. I pray that God will strike me down before I ever do that to anyone.
We learned about all the perversions, or at least about all those our teacher knew about, and that was a lot. Some were pretty funny, but some were just horrible. There was a lot about homosexuality, how bad it was, and how we must love the sinner but not the sin. That stuff was one reason I left the monastery. I will get to that soon.
Math was my best subject. We got arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry, plain and solid. Most of the kids griped about math, but I loved it. Pretty soon I caught on to what Fr. Luis was doing for tests. He would assign certain problems in the book for homework. The problems he had not assigned would show up on his tests. I got wise and worked all the problems. I got quite a few hundreds on my tests, and hardly ever had a test come back lower than ninety-seven. Fr. Luis used to brag about me when I was not around. Two or three of the other monks told me about it. I can never repay Fr. Luis for teaching me math—geometry and trig, especially. I know he is in Heaven.
Those were the main subjects we took, but Fr. Patrizio had a telescope and used to point out all the stars to us, and tell us about them, and how you could see the Southern Cross once you crossed the equator. He was from Argentina, and he must have been lonely for the stars he grew up with. So we did not actually study astronomy—nobody thought we would have to know it—but I found the stars beautiful and interesting, and I picked up a lot from him.
We took music, too. I like music a lot, but I did not like or even understand the things we studied in music, and I always wanted to play faster than I was supposed to.
After a while the old kids were mostly gone, a few new ones had come, and nobody wore wristwatches anymore. (I noticed that.) Mass was in Latin instead of Spanish, and everybody seemed a little calmer. Fr. Patrizio was dead or gone or something. I missed some of the old kids and some of my old teachers. But basically I liked it better.
One day the Novice Master came into music class to take me to the abbot. I had heard his homilies two or three times, but I am not sure I had ever spoken to him until then. On feast days we were at one end of the table and the abbot was at the other, so we never talked. There were at least two abbots while I was there. Maybe three. I remembered my father saying abbots brought you down, and I was sure I was not going to like him and that it was going to be bad news.
Which in a way it was. I did like him, though, and by the time we were through talking I liked him a lot. By then I knew I had hurt him, too, and felt bad about it.
He was a lot shorter, and pretty old. I remember the lines on his face, and how shy his eyes were. Now I think he must have known right from the start that I was looking to lie to him. (Sometimes I have wondered what he thought about me, this skinny gringo kid who was going to sit there and lie to him. Some other times I have been glad I do not know.)
He said that it was time my novitiate was over, that I had to decide now whether I would take my solemn vows at Easter. He talked a little about his own life outside the monastery. His father had been a cobbler and had taught him the trade. Then he talked a lot about his life as a monk, how he used to mend sandals for the other monks, and all the monastery had meant to him. He talked about God, and devoting your life to Him. He asked a lot of questions about me, too. What the monastery had been like for me, and what my life outside had been like.
By the time he asked for my decision I had already thought it over, though perhaps it was not really thinking but only what kids call thinking. I said that I was not ready yet to take my vows. That I wanted to go home and see my father and have a chance to talk things over with him and with myself.
The abbot sighed, but I do not think he was surprised. He said, “I comprehend you. Will you promise me something, Crisóforo?” (Everything was in Spanish, but I might as well translate for you because I do not remember the exact words we used anyhow.)
I said it would depend on what the promise was.
“A very small thing, Christopher. To make an old man happy?”
I said I would try. By then I was pretty sure it was going to be about sex, probably to keep away from women.
For a minute or two he sat there studying me. His eyes had probably been sharp once, but they were too kind to be sharp anymore. “I would like a better promise than that,” he said at last, “but I shall settle for that one, since I must. I want you to promise that you will never forget us.”
I said, “Wait, you don’t understand. I’ll probably come back,” and I talked a lot about that, going on and on and repeating things I had said already. Lying.
Finally he cut me off. He said I was free to go. If I wanted to say good-bye to people I could stay that night.
I said, “No, Reverend Abbot, I want to go right now,” and after that he called for Brother Ignacio.
Brother Ignacio took me to the gate. He never said a single word to me. Not one. Only when I turned back to wave good-bye, he was crying. There have been times since then when I thought I understood how he felt.
I had taken off my habit and put on the clothes I used to wear back when I went home for the summer, my T-shirt and jeans. They were way too small for me now, but that was all I had. I started walking down the road dressed like that, and carrying my little holiday bag. I should have known right away that something was wrong, but I did not. Not even when the farmer came by in his wagon and gave me a ride.
It was an old wagon pulled by an old horse. I thought there would be cars and trucks whizzing past us, but there was not a one. After a while it came to me that the road ought to have been asphalt. Not a good road, potholes and all that, but asphalt.
It was just dirt. For a while I leaned out of the wagon watching for tire tracks, but the only tracks were from horses, and wagons with wheels like ours—wooden wheels with iron tires.
I started talking to the farmer then. I was supposed to be trying to find out what had happened, but I talked a whole lot more than I listened. I told him a lot about the monastery, trying to make it as real as I could. Because I felt—I do not know why—that it would not be there if I went back. When I had gone out the gate, waved to Brother Ignacio, and walked to the road, I had ended something. I did not know what it was then, but I knew it was over and I could not go back. Not for a long time, and maybe never. Later on the Santa Charita, I prayed to God that He would change His mind and put me back there. But as soon as I had said the amen I knew He would not.
Anyway, the farmer did not talk much, and when he did I did not learn much from it. Camión? Oh, yes. A big wagon with four horses. It goes to Matanzas, you pay to get on. Habana? Yes, a big city. Very big. Many people.
But when we got there, it was not. It was a town, and not a big one either. There was a big stone fort, still being built in places, and some stone churches. Just about everything else was wood, and pretty rough. A few streets were paved with rocks, but most were just dirt. There was garbage in them and horse shit. Lots of both. When we got to the market, I helped the farmer set up and said good-bye.
There were refreshment stands in the market, and the food smelled wonderful. I went off looking for our house, hoping my father would be home and thinking about ways I might be able to get in if he was not. It had been east of the city, but when I got there it was not there. There were no houses at all, just fields of corn and sugarcane. I was sure I had gone wrong, so I went north as far as the beach, and south quite a way, and so on. You can imagine.
And it was not there. I decided then that there were two Havanas, or maybe the city had changed its name and this little town had taken it over.
By then I was about starved. I went back to the market and stopped at every stand, saying I would be glad to do some work if the man or woman who ran it would give me something to eat. It was no at every stand.
Finally I stole some food. It was a little loaf of Cuban bread, still warm from the oven. I grabbed it and ran as fast as I could, which was pretty fast even back then. When I got into an alley that had a good hiding place, I ate it. I have never eaten anything better in my whole life than that little loaf of Cuban bread. Cuban bread is about like our Italian bread but sweeter, and for me it was like I was in Hell and a fresh loaf from Heaven had fallen and I had caught it. Right then I should have thought seriously about the Eucharist, but I did not.
What I thought about instead was sin. I knew that it was wrong to steal and that I had stolen the bread, but I had learned enough moral theology to know that when a hungry person steals food it is only a venial sin. I had committed quite a few venial sins already, like lying to the abbot, and I figured God was not going to send me off to Hell for venial sins anyway. That night I slept in my hiding place in the alley, and I did not like it.
The next day was not much different, except that I stole a chicken. There was a woman in the market who roasted them to order on a spit, little skinny chickens that would have made my English teacher make jokes about friars. Without letting on that I was paying attention, I watched her pretty carefully while she was roasting one. When it was done, the customer who wanted it spread a rag on the table, and the chicken-stand woman laid the hot chicken on that. There was a little time—a few seconds—when nobody was holding it. Then the customer wrapped it up in her rag and put it in her basket and paid.
So I waited for the next customer, figuring I would grab the chicken out of her basket while she was paying. Only the next customer had a basket with a lid, and I saw that my idea was not going to work. She would put it in there and close the lid, and start screaming while I was getting her basket open. What I would have to do instead was grab the chicken as soon as it was put down on the rag.
I tried to, but all I got was a whack from the chicken woman’s stick, a stick I had not even noticed she had. It hurt like the devil and I was afraid I was going to get caught, so I ran.
It made me mad, too. Mad at her for whacking me, and mad at myself for not grabbing the chicken. I knew it was going to be a lot tougher when I tried it again, so I waited until the sun was nearly down and some of the stands were closing. That made it easier for me to see from a distance when she had a customer, because there were not as many people. For a while I was afraid she would not have any more.
Finally somebody came, a man. I think he meant to eat his chicken as soon as he got it, because he did not have a basket or anything to carry it in. She got a chicken for him from the wooden cage and showed it to him. He nodded, and she twisted its neck, and plucked and gutted it faster than you would have thought possible.
While it was cooking, I worked in a little closer. And as soon as she had it off her spit, I had it out of her hand. She got me again with her stick and it hurt pretty bad, but I grabbed her stick with my free hand before she could get it back up and got it away from her.
She thought I was going to hit her with it then, but I did not. I just dropped it and ran off with her chicken.
Maybe it tasted as good as the bread. I do not know. All that I remember is how scared I was that I was going to get caught before I finished it. How scared she was too—that short fat woman cowering with her arms up, afraid I was going to brain her with her own stick. When I thought of her just now, that is how I remembered her.
When I had eaten everything and sucked the bones—it did not seem like much—I found another sleeping place, not so near the market and the docks. And when I was lying there thinking about the chicken and getting hit twice with her stick, it came to me that if the lanky man buying the chicken had grabbed me from behind, it would have been all over. I would be in jail, was what I thought. Now I think they would probably have tied me to a post and beaten the merda out of me, then kicked me out. That is how they usually punished people when I was then.
After that, I started thinking about the monastery. Really thinking about it, maybe for the first time ever. How peaceful it had been, and how just about everybody there tried to look out for everybody else. I missed my cell, the chapel, and the refectory. I missed some of my teachers, too, and Brother Ignacio. It was funny, but the thing I missed most of all was the work he and I had done outside—helping milk sometimes, herding the pigs, and weeding. Collecting eggs in a basket like the ones I had hoped to steal out of, and carrying them in to Brother Cook. (His name was José, but everybody called him Brother Cook anyway.)
Then I got to thinking again about the rules, and what they had meant. You could not go into anybody else’s cell, not ever, and the cells had no doors on them. You got told when to take a bath, three novices at a time, and there would be a monk there watching the whole time, generally Brother Fulgencio. He was older even than the abbot.
Those were rules I had not thought about at all when I was little. I took them in stride, like I had taken the rules at our school in the States. But when I got older and we learned about being gay and all that, I understood. They had thought we were, and they had not cared as long as we did not actually do anything with another kid. Once I had realized what was going on, it bugged me a lot. I did not want to spend the rest of my life thinking about girls and knowing that the people around me were thinking about boys, and thinking I was, too.
It was that last part that really got to me. If it had not been for that, if there had been a way I could have proved once and for all that I was no leccacazzi, I think I might have stayed.
That got me to thinking about how it was outside. It seemed to me Our Lady of Bethlehem had been a good thing, a good idea Saint Dominic had a thousand years ago: a place where people who did not ever want to fall in love or get married—or felt like they could not—could go and live really good lives.
But it seemed to me, too, that the world outside the monastery ought to be about the same, only with falling in love and maybe having kids, a place where people liked each other and helped each other, and everybody got to do what he was good at.
That has never changed for me. When you read the rest of this you’re not going to believe me, but I am writing the truth. We have to make it like that, and the only way we can do it is for each person to choose it and change. I chose it that night, and if I have slipped up pretty often God knows I am truly sorry about every slip.
Sometimes I have had to slip. I ought to say that, too.
Copyright © 2007 by Gene Wolfe. All rights reserved.