I was out in the fields, up to my pits in manure when Sonia appeared. I was aware of her presence even without looking up. I wasn’t ignoring her. I just wanted her to say something first. I carried on with the potatoes, earthing them up with stuff so rich and sweet you could make Christmas cakes out of it.
‘Hi Gabriel’ she said at last. I stood up and looked at her. I must have given her one hell of a whack because her left cheekbone still showed signs of yellowing and it had been at least three weeks since. I had to look away.
‘Gabriel’ she said and came and sat me down, forcing me to pay attention. She asked how I was and what I’d been up to and I told her in a flat chatty sort of tone. I finished by saying it would be nice if she, or she and Miguel came over one day and I saw her back away – not physically – she didn’t move, but I saw her do it. ‘Yes, that would be nice’ she said, unconvincingly. We sat quietly for a while then. ‘You should talk to someone’ she said, standing up and I wanted to say sarcastically ‘Well yes. That would be nice too’ but instead I just looked at her quizzically.
‘Maybe you should go and see the monks.’
‘How’s he doing – the one...’
‘I’d like to see him, er... if he...’
‘I’ll find out for you’ she said, then waved and went away again. The rest of the team were over the next bank so I could sit and brood for a while in private.
I got word from Kev a couple of days later that the monk I’d attacked would be happy to see me. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t want to go back in that place but then I also knew I couldn’t stay here at all with that hanging over me. If this really was an evil place (an increasingly unconvincing argument it had to be admitted) surely it was time to pick up my things and move on, not go and make peace. I looked at Kev sitting beside me on the front bench with his shoes in his hands, inspecting them, I don’t know what for. I looked at his feet – sound sea-faring feet, used for clambering about in rigging and clinging to slippery decks. I desperately wanted to stay here.
‘Who are these monks? What are they here for?’ I asked tentatively.
‘You should ask them.’
‘But last time... I don’t want anything like that to happen again.’
‘Is that at all likely?’
I thought of the sculptures and the murals I’d seen and the overwhelming need to fight my way out that had come over me. I couldn’t risk it.
‘Perhaps if one of them came to see you here...’
‘You met Peter didn’t you, back at the beginning?’
‘Well yes but... He wasn’t very helpful.’
‘I’ll ask’ he says, getting to his feet, and then looking down at me he says ‘Lobster?’ and I say ‘Are you buying?’ and he says ‘Don’t need to. Caught them myself this morning’ and we head off to his place in the sunset.
Next day is Myday and I’m having a lie in when I hear Peter call ‘Knock knock. Anybody home?’
‘Come in’ I shout and sort myself out something to wear – shorts as usual.
‘My, you look a lot better’ he says as I descend.
‘I am a lot better. Fancy a cuppa?’
‘Just water, thanks. Been keeping busy?’ he says and I recap for him the rather uneventful last few weeks since the incident. I have the impression he’s not really listening but it’s hard to be sure. He goes over to the window and peers out as I sort out the drinks. It’s a bright clear morning after a good deal of rain in the night. Everything smells of fresh water but it’s beginning to steam outside as the sun comes along and swimming seems like the most sensible option for the day.
Finally I stand there with a tray in my hands and say ‘Inside or out?’ and he says ominously ‘I think inside is more appropriate don’t you?’ I find myself checking out where the nearest weapon is. I’ve taken to secreting them around the place – knives and heavy wooden sticks and such like.
We settle opposite one another on the sofas and sip our drinks.
‘I understand you have some questions’ he says.
My mind races – not because I have a lot of questions, but because I’m trying to imagine the response if I ask the wrong thing. I’ve thought about this a lot, although in my imagination I’ve been taken in for interrogation, not enjoying a cup of coffee on the sofa. Still, I need to be careful.
On the other hand I have no idea what the wrong question is.
‘Who are you? What are the monks here for? What is the sanctuary for?’ I blurt. I was never any good at strategy.
‘Whoa, whoa’ he says. ‘One question at a time. Please. Who am I? My name is Peter, you know that. As for the other monks, well, there are about twenty of us all told. Brother Jeffrey you encountered the other week.’
‘How is he?’
‘He’s well and looking forward to meeting you I believe.’ I look across at him sitting there, being sarcastic or not? I can’t tell.
‘But what um...’ I can’t seem to formulate the question. Brother Peter sits there impassively as I try to arrange my thoughts. ‘What are you all here for?’ I say finally ‘the monks I mean.’
‘Let me help you out’ he says, evidently having enjoyed my discomfort long enough. ‘We are not a religious order as such, or rather, we accept brethren of all faiths and none, brothers and sisters I should say. Our purpose here is simply to provide a... how shall we say? a spiritual home for the community. We provide safe haven for the lost and the damaged among us and a venue for worship and thanksgiving and celebration.’
‘Worship of whom? Thanks to whom?’
‘Hard to say’ he says leaning back. ‘One of the great eternal questions that. We don’t feel the need to specify, but simply respond to the specific need – to relate to the eternal, the ineffable, the absolute, however you may conceive of that.’
He looks at me rather piercingly. Surely he knows what I want to ask. Maybe he’s just waiting for me to incriminate myself. What the heck, I think. They’ll get me one way or another.
‘What about the tree, and the virgins? What about the demons?’
‘I saw them, in the upper halls. There were statues, and murals. You know about them, don’t pretend you don’t. What are they here for?’
‘I’m afraid you have me at a loss.’
‘You know exactly what I’m talking about’ I say, standing up and readying myself to grab the knife from behind the cushions
‘I don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about at all’ and the genuinely worried look on his face makes me pause. He’s actually frightened. I realise it’s been a big risk for him to come here like this and sit with me. I go to the door and look about outside, all the while contemplating the hatchet hanging there if I need it. I turn and look at him. He’s actually trembling.
I sit down again but leaning forward, peering into his face. ‘Look’ I say and go over to the desk. I bring back the sketches I made. ‘Look, the demons, and here, underneath, who are all these people? They look like the children...’
He looks at the pictures – the copulating couples among the tree roots and the reptilian warrior with its machete and the severed limbs. Peter covers his mouth in horror and says nothing but he recognises them, I’m sure of it.
‘This is all...’ he begins. I wait. He looks at me. ‘You know these things?’ he says at last. I give him a tentative nod. ‘Of course’ he says and some sort of understanding crosses his face. He even smiles. He reaches in his pocket and I ready myself for attack. He pulls out a cloth and shows me it’s just a cloth and dabs his face with it.
‘Do you imagine you were the first to come to us via this route?’ he says, holding up the drawing of the tree. ‘By no means’ he says, getting himself settled again. ‘By no means... We are always being offered items to store or to display, surely you noticed.’ I nod. ‘A fantastic collection’ he continues. ‘Some exquisite pieces brought to us – a celebration and alas, a lament. That gallery you saw included some pieces by a woman by the name of Charlotte who came to us some years ago – these pieces.’
‘What happened to her?’ I say, fearing the worst.
‘Last I heard she was living in a village in the mountains with her husband. Roy I think his name is.’
‘Oh’ I say, somewhat deflated. This is not at all what I expected.
‘You were expecting something else? Something more sinister perhaps?’
I shrug and stand up. I need to walk about. Then it occurs to me that I need breakfast. I ask if Peter wants anything – tortilla, ham, tomatoes? He happily says yes to everything but doesn’t offer to help. While the onions and potatoes are frying I pour some fruit juice and take a glass over for him. He goes over to the back door and says ‘May I?’ I let him out and I watch him wandering around, looking at my already burgeoning salad patch. ‘I’m a terrible gardener’ he says when he sees me there. ‘Haven’t a clue.’ He picks a lettuce leaf and chews it meditatively.
After breakfast, taken up on the terrace, he leans back in a hammock and some silent fellowship follows. Eventually, without turning to me he says ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t much help before. I thought... I hoped perhaps you would not need me but there you are. Would you like to tell me what happened?’
I sit there on my chair, feeling more like the analyst than the analysed. I feel like I need to see some credentials.
‘Do you help a lot of people?’
‘Are you saying have I done this before? The answer is yes. Many times.’
‘And you find it helps’
‘Sometimes. I’ve never known it do harm. Tell me what happened. Tell me about the tree and the demons.’
I sit back and try to remember everything. I look at him there, looking away from me, waiting. I feel like I should begin ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned’ but that’s just it. I don’t know if I have. I don’t know what I’ve done.
‘Just tell me what you remember’ he says ‘It will come...’
Still not entirely without suspicion I begin by telling him what I told the others – in particular about the valley of death and the stream and the community there amongst the flowers. I can’t be sure if he’s listening or if he’s even awake but I continue anyway, moving into the other hammock as I go, staring up into the sky, telling him about what went on there.
Eventually I get to the last part of the story, the part I am dreading.
I remember it got to a time when the mood in the camp began to change. The first thing I noticed was that the girls I had ‘rejected’ tended to be treated particularly harshly the following night. I was well aware that the violence was done for my edification rather than anything particularly to do with the girls themselves. That was bad enough but I knew things were really serious when Ponytail took me aside one evening and offered me a toke of the ‘superior brew’ he kept for himself and his ‘special friends’. I pretended to inhale but he wasn’t fooled. After a while he leaned in on me and whispered to me in his lowest, most syrupy voice about the pleasures on offer. I knew this was my last chance he was giving me. I felt his whole weight on my shoulder and his hot wet breath in my ear and the stale fishy stench of him in my nostrils. Two girls clung to him on the other side.
‘Everybody likes a little virgin ass once in a while’ he drawled on me, ‘and they’re lying if they say otherwise. Everybody likes a little fresh fish. You know what I mean. This is our reward in heaven and we didn’t even have to join Al-Quaeda. That’s why you’re here. You know what I’m talking about? Everybody’s here for a reason. Everything has a purpose. You know what I’m saying. Come on, let me show you...’ and he began to tug me along in a stoned sort of way across to the bender where he normally spent his time. I stood there and wouldn’t be moved. He pulled harder, his narcosis rapidly dissipating. ‘Aw come on man’ he said, still acting jocular, clowning for the crowd who by now were watching but I knew that psychotic twinkle in his eye and I knew to prepare myself. And in any case, I was just so utterly sick of him, or men like him, always trying to shame you into playing their sick game, to get you to play on their terms, to come down to their level. Why does nobody ever stop them? How do they get away with it?
And yet I know I was not thinking that clearly. I was still terrified of the hot darkness out there and I still wanted to find another way. I still clung to the hope that if I just kept quiet and out of the way they wouldn’t press anything on me and wouldn’t take offence but they seemed unable to leave me alone. The more I tried to stay out of it the more they’d come to find me, to try to ply me, first with massages and beads, then more insistently with narcotic weeds and finally, violently with the prospect of rapes and beatings. I think I knew at the time it was because I made them look bad. Some vestige of ethics still hung about the place and usually its only role was to add a certain transgressive frisson to the revelry, but now here I was just saying ‘No’.
Of course I had to be disposed of. What other option was there?
Finally I realise it was Ponytail’s insistence that I was there for a reason that clinched it, but it wasn’t the reason he had in mind. I felt for the nasty black blade I’d kept hidden in my clothes since leaving the war zone. I’d thought it might come in handy. When I looked down at it in my hands I understood that this was my reason for being here. This was what it had all been for. It explained everything.
‘How did you find me, my body I mean?’ I ask Peter at last, exhausted with the story. He sits in his hammock facing me, gripping my hands in both of his.
‘I was out walking, a long way from here’ he says. ‘Sometimes it’s a necessity. Do you remember the day we uncovered you?’
‘There was no point in moving you immediately. I had to get some help to move the rocks away and remove the plants that had grown and then wait for your legs to knit together sufficiently so that you could be moved in one piece. It was a long process.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘You were not far from gone. We nearly lost you.’
‘And you brought me back here.’
‘Sonia looked after you from the start. You should thank her.’
‘She knew where I’d been didn’t she?’
‘You can ask her about that’ he says and makes a movement that tells me he’s ready to go. ‘And now’ he says ‘I must bid you good day. I feel the need for a very long walk.’
I see him off at the door as he heads along the path up river into the forest. Then I turn and go back inside. I sit and look at nothing for some time, nothing especially in my head, just a strange silence. I can hear everything for miles around. I can breathe at last.
I do feel strangely liberated. I feel like I’ve maybe proved I’m one of the good guys after all, because I wouldn’t, when it came to it, just go along with what everyone else was doing, even though I knew what the consequences might be, I did it anyway. I spent that last night cutting as many of them as I could catch into small pieces and scattering them in the undergrowth. And as the survivors, bleeding and weeping, eventually managed to overpower me and drag me to the ravine, I finally believed I had done something hugely important – that I had finally stood up for myself, and for what was right, not against some petty functionary or faceless corporate wonk but against real evil. It was enough. I had done it at last.
It’s still only early afternoon. I think first perhaps I’ll go for a swim, then maybe a stroll in the forest then I’ll need another swim. Then an early dinner and finally a good night’s sleep and then perhaps tomorrow I’ll go and see if I can find Brother Jeffrey – maybe take him some flowers and some fruit.