Short Fiction: The Monastery

Todd Steinbelch dragged his foot up and over the seven hundred and fifty-fifth—and final—step leading to the Tibetan monastery. He dropped the knapsack from his shoulder and collapsed on the pavement, lying there undisturbed, just like those ancient stones. After catching his breath, Todd sat and viewed the centuries-old spiritual haven; the sight flooded him with a rare serenity. Sure, there had been some restorations, and the odd bit of renovation work, but all in all the secluded house of meditation remained much as it was when monks built it four hundred years ago. With instantly renewed vigour, Todd stood and approached the first building, a small, wooden shack. Towering behind it, the exquisite monastery loomed, full of timeless wisdom. There Todd would find the answer he sought.

Silence was one of the monks’ key disciplines, and Todd found himself affronted by it; the loudest sound on the mountain was his own footsteps. It felt at first unnatural, but gradually he acclimatised, and then perceived faint noises around him: a bird, down the hill to his right, flitting from tree to tree with a short, two-note whistle; above to the left, perhaps not far from the monastery, a small brook cascading; from the little shack up ahead, the lethargic bleep of an ATM. Todd entered the shack. Sitting cross-legged on the floor was a thin man wearing a yellow robe, with a single plait of hair on his otherwise shaved head. The man stood without urgency and smiled. He gave Todd a traditional blessing and the Wi-Fi password.

Leaving the shack and passing through the gift shop, Todd entered a small, open courtyard, the centrepiece of which was a wide-branching cherry tree, deep and rich in colour, with splendid horizontal markings like tiger stripes. The tree at this time of year was bare of leaves and blossoms, yet lacked no beauty. Nailed to its trunk was a length of parchment bearing foreign script. Todd examined the message and searched his pocket Tibetan dictionary for a translation. He was able to decipher that a cat was missing, belonging to one of the monks. A reward was offered for the cat, who answered to the name Mr Snuggles.

Todd waited in the courtyard for an hour to see the old wise man. Eventually he came. Short and withered, he shuffled along, trembling on a cane. Though physically he appeared to have outstayed his welcome in this life, his spirit was that of youth. He had but one tooth, but what a smile displayed it. His voice was weak and raspy, but he employed it for laughter. He sat (and almost fell off) a bench beneath the cherry tree, and motioned for Todd to join him. Todd sat and began, with some uncertainty, to speak to the old man. He was relieved to hear the old man answer him in perfect English. He even had a slight Texan accent. It turned out the old man was from Fort Worth, and had become a monk many years ago after failing as an actor. He said he auditioned for the role of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, but Marlon Brando got the part because he was taller. Todd smiled politely and nodded. The old man looked to the heavens in anguish, raised his hands and heaved a hoarse, “Stella!”

Todd explained his dilemma to the old man. He was a butcher, but he was also an innovator. It wasn’t enough for him to just sell meat; he wanted to revolutionise meat consumption. He wanted to create the next T-bone steak. But he had no idea how. He had travelled hundreds of miles to ask the old man’s advice and hear his response.

“I dunno.”

Todd sighed.

“Sorry, pal,” wheezed the old man. “I don’t know much about meat. We’re all vegetarians in this monastery.”

Todd stood. A tear of disappointment rolled off his cheek and splashed down on the cold courtyard stones.

“What about chocolate chip ham?” said the old man.

Back at home, Todd invested all his capital in creating a quality leg ham infused with chunks of smooth Swiss chocolate. He called it “Pork Indulgence”. Two weeks later, on the verge of bankruptcy, he sold the business to a rapper looking to diversify his assets.



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