The Mystery of the Eighth Man

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"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."

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.

Well, in the monastery, you don’t call guys out. It’s not done. For one thing we don’t talk more than is absolutely necessary, and for another there’s a sort of let-things-play-out ethic here, just relax and things will become clear soon enough, we have plenty of time, so I just let him sing. I don’t think the other six guys even noticed the new guy. We were in a good groove and there’s a real pleasure in a good stretch like that when you are singing in a group. So we just kept going. We sang the new song through probably 10 times, and then it was about time to close up for the evening anyway, so we tried it one more time, and this last time I thought we nailed it, each guy’s voice fit right. Just lovely. When we finished we all laughed and I noticed the guy was gone, just like that.

Now, I don’t know what to make of this, said the young monk, and the more I think about it the more I think maybe there’s nothing to be made of it. A guy appeared out of nowhere one night, joined us for choir practice, sang beautifully, and then he vanished. No one else noticed him. I can assure you he was there; I am not a nut. He wore a brown robe. He had kind of a grainy baritone. He wasn’t tall or short. That’s all I can tell you. I never saw him again. I told the abbot about him and the abbot listened carefully and after I was done telling him the story and we sat silent for a while the abbot said boy, we could sure use a good baritone. That’s all he’s said about it so far. So there’s a story for you. If you wanted to treat it like a mystery there would sure be a lot of interesting details, like the choir door was locked the whole time, and we don’t have any guys who sing baritone, and the gate on the road to the abbey was also locked, and to make your way on foot through the woods to the abbey at night is an adventure and a half, not to mention there are bears and cougars in those woods, and the biggest owls I have ever seen, you wonder if the owls up there go around picking up sleeping deer or what at night. But if you didn’t want to treat it as a mystery, you could just marvel at the fact that a guy with a rough baritone showed up one night, sang the same song eleven times with us, and then vanished. I think maybe we spend too much time trying to figure out what stories mean rather than just marveling at the stories, you know what I mean?

I do, I said.

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. These are enormous trout, by the way. A couple of times I thought I saw a trout the size of a couch, but that might have been a trick of the light. One time I did see a very large trout rise after a dragonfly, which seemed awfully ambitious to me, but who knows what when it comes to possible and impossible, you know what I mean?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazineat the University of Portland and the author of many books of essays and fiction. Reprinted from Ruminate (Autumn 2013), a quarterly magazine of short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith.

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