The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Twenty

from Pieces for Small Orchestra by Norman Lock
String Theory by Steven Schutzman
Three Short Shorts by Patrik Linhart
The Song of the Nightingale by Fernando Arrojo-Ramos
Seven Pieces of Meat by David Ray
The Noctis Equi by Deb R. Lewis
When Dada Wrote Koans by Theodore Wei Changsheng


irreal (re)views


The Song of the Nightingale
by Fernando Arrojo-Ramos

At the close of the 10th century, Christendom was anguished by an unmitigated fear, for it had been prophesied, and convincingly repeated, that some time in the year 1000, now drawing near, the world would come to an end. In Hispania, many believed that the destruction of St. James's temple, and the sack of Compostela, in 997 by Almanzor, had been a bad omen. Was the fearful Moorish dog the Antichrist who was to appear at the end of time?

Apocalyptic disasters were meticulously predicted from pulpits: intensive earthquakes would tear mountains apart from meadows; the seas would flood villages and cities and their waters would reach the highest peaks of the tallest mountains; all the stars in heaven would collapse onto the planet. No one could tell for certain how such disastrous predictions had evolved, but the fact that they were affirmed by wise men of God was enough for people to believe them. Death, Last Judgment, heaven, hell: man's final destiny—happiness or torment for eternity.

Virila de Tiermas, old abbot of the monastery of St. Salvador of Leyre, wrote his bishop a letter confessing his anxieties, which were of a more personal nature, with humility of fear and arrogance of doubts. But being uncertain of its effect, and still hoping to conquer his weakness, he decided not to send it for the moment. He hid it on the highest shelf of the library, in between the parchments of a rarely used Koranic text, behind a row of boring manuscripts.

A shocking doubt distressed him, undermining his faith. Certainly he had not abandoned any of those beliefs so deeply rooted from childhood, nor had he questioned the unfathomable mysteries of dogmas; besides, he lead a life cleansed of sin. Therefore, he foresaw rewards not punishments. His doubt had to do with happiness, not in this earthly life, an ephemeral test for patience and virtues, but in the everlasting one: He was terrified by the prospect of facing eternal boredom. Would he be able to contemplate eternally, with ecstasy, the Holy Trinity and all the other heavenly figures? Could he excitedly join in perpetuum the infinite legions of angels and blessed souls who sang praises to the Almighty without interruption? Scenes of heaven, so many times repeated on porticos, capitals, and murals, showed one more or less vivid moment, but not eternal time. He accused himself with the sin of arrogance for not accepting unquestionably the mysterious ways of divine providence.

One night, unable to sleep, he compared the boredom of heaven with torments of hell, thinking, with malicious logic, that if heaven and hell were equal, God and the devil would probably be the same. He opened his eyes to steep himself into reality and covered his ears to silence his mind. But he could not get rid of these blasphemies. He then resorted to the whip and, in the solitude of his cell, he flogged and flogged himself until redeeming blood oozed from the wounds. He did not feel worthy of his ministry. To think that he, the abbot of the venerable and influential monastery of Leyre, spiritual leader of Cluniac monks who always expected his advice during difficult times, during solemn religious acts and so many other functions, could receive divine Grace with a vulgarly human discontent made him feel rotten. His obsession was like a sickness that he could not prevent. The devil had inculcated it in him with the persistence of canonical hours.

Virila kept hoping to overcome the devil's snares by praying, working hard in the garden, perhaps reading. He observed St. Benedict's rule—ora et labora—but had a predilection for St. Augustine's teachings because he hoped, overcome by vanity, that human knowledge would make him share the divine one.

It was daybreak; Prime prayers had been said. The doorkeeper opened the front door, and abbot Virila got out of the monastery. A walk in the woods would be a relief. Frost had silvered the sown fields, the pastures, the bushes, and the first rays of the sun strove to burn off the fog, filtering weakly through the branches of pine and fir trees, thus creating worlds of light. There was in the air a fresh smell of humidity blending with that of burning leaves from the fire set by one of the monks. He could hear the cheerful songs of the starlings.

The abbot went down the monastery road until he reached the valley where the Aragón River ran, surrounded by slopes of eroded limestone. The pilgrims' route was located there, and he followed it westward. It was deserted. Nature was wrapped in a light hesitating between gold and off-white. A nightingale was singing on the branch of a tree, and so close he heard its song that he thought the bird was on his shoulder. It flew away in a direction that seemed to point out a different route through the woods. Following the nightingale's flight and song, the abbot found his way blocked by a small mountain. He no longer heard the bird singing, rather a sort of distant clamor which he could neither identify as that of complaints or merriment. With increasing difficulty, almost crawling, he reached the top. His breathing was labored; he could hardly stand, gasping for air. Then, down the other side, he saw a valley with an endless horizon, filled with an interminable crowd, men and women of all ages, naked, engaged in a variety of acts, some despicable, others totally incomprehensible. Many were in groups seemingly talking in the most natural way. Some, instead of a head, carried a deeply dark cherry with a long stem, or an egg as white and pure as snow, both huge. Some were dancing, others singing, still others took pleasure playing with mythical animals. There were strange kinds of fruit, gigantic mussels, owls as big as men, flying fish, monstrous, bloody looking strawberries, ready to burst. In the distance, he could see a huge tent with animals and people inside; whatever was still beyond that, it was impossible to make out. Nearby, there were also structures that looked like sentry boxes of various colors and strange shapes, all of them shockingly different; inside, people, regardless of gender, were fornicating furiously. Such a place was not mentioned in the Scriptures. It was not heaven, it was not hell, it was not limbo, and yet for all those beings it seemed to provide an eternity. What was it then? The abbot thought he was experiencing a dizzying future. "I must be dead," he said to himself.

He plunged into that vortex. People were staring at his strange black habit, and their looks became so persistent and distrutful that the abbot, feeling embarrassed, took off his clothes, melting naked into the crowd. And he did not feel ashamed, only relief. The people spoke diverse languages, and the abbot, puzzled, realized that he understood them all. He wanted to know where he was. He asked a blond man, who instead of a hat was wearing a bunch of black grapes, and was riding a red horse with a pig's head, who replied, "This is the garden of delights. Here all pleasures are permitted. Here your fantasies are realized. Here lies are true, and the truth confirms the legitimacy of the absurd, and even the irrational."

The abbot, confused, covered his ears.

He went on walking and came across a man with malicious eyes who, inexplicably, looked, all at once, twisted, slender, short, handsome, young, and old. He was carrying a closed book on his head and a huge die in his arms.

"What is the book about?" asked the abbot.

"Truth," the man replied, smiling a mellifluous smile.

"Have you read it?"

His answer was categorical and angry, "Never."

"Then, how do you know what the book is about? Why do you carry it?"

"I know because a Greek sage told me. I always carry it in his honor. But my real interest is to keep creating the future with the numbers on this die. You want to know yours?"

Before the abbot could answer, the man threw the die, which rotated until it stopped, incredibly upright, on one of its points.

"What a pity! You got zero, the not being. Its circle means eternity and its center is the dreadful hole of nothingness," said the man, and went away roaring with laughter.

Then a woman, whose face looked like an owl, with big ears and flabby breasts, wearing a funnel on her head while eagerly munching on an apple, approached the abbot and said, "Don't listen to the die man; he is a cheat. The die always stands like that. He tells the same things to everyone. He does it just to impress people."

"Who are you?" asked the abbot.

"I am a very famous sibyl. In Delphi everybody knows me."

"That's not possible. You mean you used to be a sibyl," corrected the abbot.

"No. I am and I am not. The past does not exist here," said the woman. "And you, who are you?"

The abbot, playing along with her, replied, "I am, or perhaps I am not, the abbot of the monastery of St. Salvador of Leyre."

At that moment, he heard a hopeful and very beautiful trill, but he couldn't tell where it was coming from. He asked the woman, who seemed to be very well informed about everything, the name of the bird that emitted such heavenly trill.

"It's a cockatoo imitating a nightingale," she said. And she sermonized, "All is plagiarism; all is an eternal and winding repetition."

Then she took leave by raising the funnel from her head, showing a nest made of manes of green hair, with little rooks hungrily raising their tiny beaks.

"Oh God. What do you intend to reveal to me?" implored the abbot. "Credo quia absurdum," he said to himself, quoting St. Augustine's words. Suspecting, however, that he would not get an answer, he disappeared into that incredible crowd, with the terrible certainty that it would be impossible for him to return from that alienated world, which, perhaps, could eventually become habitual to him.

1298. The monastery of Leyre, now under Cistercian rule, has lost the influence it once had, but still preserves a rich library, where Cistercian abbot Sancho Ansúrez, educated in the School for Translators of Toledo, studies, translates, interprets manuscripts. His persistent pain in one side prevents his moving around freely. His white habit stands out among the shadows cast by the shelves in the deceptive light of the candles. He never forgets a certain sentence from Mohammed, forecast by Hellenistic philosophers, which his Cordovan tutor taught him: "Learning just one scientific concept is vastly superior to prostrating yourself a hundred times in prayer."

Abbot Sancho Ansúrez compares three manuscripts.

One is a beautifully illuminated codex, containing 420 cantigas dedicated to St. Mary and composed in the sweet Galician language by Don Alfonso X of Castille, whom the abbot loves and admires. The heading of cantiga 103 reads, "How St. Mary made a monk sleep for three hundred years lulled by the song of a nightingale, as she asked the bird to show him the joy of those who were in paradise." Sancho Ansúrez knows that since time immemorial at the monastery they have been circulating the story attributed to Virila, former abbot of Leyre and also the monk mentioned in the cantiga, for edification and comfort of the pilgrims.

The second manuscript, of an uncertain date, is by an anonymous monk who compiled important and pious events of the Benedictine community of Leyre, among them Virila's miracle. Sancho Ansúrez holds before him a summary written by the unknown compiler: "No man can speak about the wonder of being in heaven: it is said that while a monk was thinking of how he could enjoy the pleasure without regret, a little bird singing very sweetly was sent to him from paradise, and he followed it. Outside, the monk listened to the little bird's songs, but having distanced himself from the monastery, later, when he returned, they did not recognize him." In the margin, another monk—his handwriting was different—had copied and translated a quote from psalm XC: Quonian mille anni ante oculos tuos tamquam dies hesterna quæ præterit. (For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past).

The third manuscript is a worm-eaten Koran, having been mislaid among codices and cartularies during three centuries, and rescued today by Sancho Ansúrez. Inside, a letter, dated the year of grace 999, addressed to bishop García Ramírez, and writtten in hesitant Latin, begins, "In nomine domini nostri Jhesu Christii, I, Virila, abbot of the Monastery of Leiore..." And the tormented abbot meticulously sets out his doubts about eternal happiness, which he attributes to the devil's temptations, and asks to be forgiven for his many transgressions. He vows to go to Compostela—has doubts about the world ending in 1000—and begs apostle St. James, whom he calls nobis post Deum piisimo patroni, to help him at such a painful juncture. The letter was in a section of the parchment manuscript containing verse 261 in sura II: It is said that Allah kept him dead for one hundred years and then brought him back to life. Allah asked him, "How long were you dead?" The man replied, "One or a few days." Allah said, "No. It was one hundred years."

Time and space coincidences were astonishing, or rather, obsessive. Sancho Ansúrez, however, believes that King Alfonso's cantiga, abbot Virila's miracle, and the Koranic verse are no more than inspiring parables, and Virila's return to the monastery, three hundred years later, was a creation of a wonderful legend for spiritual uplifting. What is certain is the abbot's existence, proven by his letter to the bishop. Sancho Ansúrez conjectures that Virila, like himself, lived in doubt, in a specific place, and time—one hundred, three hundred, one thousand years—is just a repetition invented by men, incapable of comprehending the unfathomable mystery of the cosmos, of eternity.

The day has been long. The pain in his side has become more acute. He blames it on inactivity. He retires to his cell.

It is dawn; Prime prayers have already been said. The doorkeeper opens the heavy front door, and abbot Sancho Ansúrez goes out of the monastery. A walk in the woods would do him some good. The sown fields, the pastures, the bushes are still silvered by frost; the first rays of the sun strive to burn off the fog, filtering weakly through the branches of pine and fir trees, then creating worlds of light. He inhales the pleasant smell of burned leaves, some monk's doing. On top of the hill, the monastery appears as if hanging in the air, held by invisible clothespins. He could hear the lively songs of the starlings.

(Translated, from the Spanish, by the author)

Fernando Arrojo-Ramos was born in Madrid, Spain, but now lives in the United States. He has combined writing fiction with teaching Spanish literature and culture at Oberlin College, where he also directed its comparative literature program for several years. He is the author of a novel and three collections of short stories, many of these published in Spain, Mexico, France, Colombia and the United States. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in English translation in the following journals, among others: Chicago Review; Santa Monica Review; High Plains Literary Review; The Florida Review; The Portland Review; Weber Studies; and The Laurel Review.

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