The Mystery of the Eighth Man

Sometimes it's best to let explanations fall short and simply marvel at the story.


| Fall 2014



A trout

"There didn't seem to be anything for me to say, after such a story, so the young monk and I just sat there by the abbey pond for a while, watching the trout rise."

Photo by Fotolia/stocksolutions

Here's a story. A young Cistercian monk tells it to me, and then he and I just sit there for a while, by the abbey pond, watching the trout rise, neither of us saying anything, because some stories are so layered and riveting that you have to wander through them again slowly in your mind after you hear them the first time, like you wander back along particularly intriguing paths and beaches and streets, you know what I mean?

I think you do.

We have choir practice every other night here, said the young monk, and it's almost always pretty serious, although sometimes, usually in summer, we get a little giddy. Probably the late light, I guess. Well, it's always the same guys, of course. Seven of us, six of whom can sing and the seventh is just the most wonderful man although he couldn’t carry a tune if it was a feather and he had a third hand. We make the same jokes, stand in the same places, make the same little singing errors. I mean, it’s a monastery, and you get into certain habits and customs, just because we are here all the time, with the same guys, doing the same thing, day after day, year after year. I'm not complaining—the consistency is a sort of prayer itself, of course, and after a while you get the sense that ritual and routine can be curiously freeing, rather than stultifying. I think when you are young you are terrified of ritual because it seems like the bars of a prison but when you are older you appreciate rituals as strong trees you can lean on, you know what I mean?

I think I do, I said.

Well, one night we were at practice, said the young monk, and it was like any other night, I guess, with moments when we were all hitting our stride and other moments when four guys were on their game and two were not, for various reasons, and we started working on a song which I knew better than the other guys, so I moved to the front to be the teacher, basically, and I noticed that there were seven guys singing, not including me. It took me a minute to process this, because it was so weird—it’s not like we get drop-in visitors, you know, and none of the monks who don’t come to practice suddenly come to practice, that doesn’t happen. So it took me a minute to spot the new guy. He was dressed like us, in the robe, but I had never seen him before, that’s for sure. He sure could sing, though. Kind of a rough baritone, like Lou Rawls if he smoked two packs a day. Or Johnny Hartman before he got warmed up, you know what I mean?

I do, I said.