There was once a monastery on a mountain. It was a small monastery with only one priest's cell and one chapel offering protection from the cold, only twelve monks' cells and twelve monks' dormitories offering the means to live and to meditate, one cloister and twelve oratories on the roof of the chapel providing light and space, only one street and one square, and only one well with twelve houses, one named after each saint who had done his best.
Much of my childhood I did not understand why the whole structure burned so brightly and so evenly, why the monks on the roof of the chapel always spoke together, why masses were celebrated every day, why in the small dormitories twelve monks slept, why the twelve pilgrims who constantly journeyed through the gates by the great stairs sought to reach the top of the mountain but never got any further. The time that filled that period was miscible, as if time itself were an orison; sometimes it was night or the middle of the day before time woke up, knowing it had begun or knowing that it had ended, in the shift between two prayers.
Then one winter's morning I was standing in the middle of the frozen lake at the foot of the valley, and perhaps it was colder or calmer that day than usual, but even at a distance I heard clearly every word that the abbot spoke to one of the novices, and every other thing. I felt I heard the mountain itself speaking, along with all the things that rustled within it and the footfalls of the twelve monks upon it. And when the abbot spoke with me later that day I did not need to search for the words, because it cost me now almost no effort to explain to him precisely what the twelve monks did on the roof of the chapel, which prayers they said and which Psalms they recited, and why it was that everyone who set out on a pilgrimage reached the top of the mountain but failed to go any further.
Indeed the certainty of these things was so deeply imprinted on my mind that even on my deathbed I will still be able to recite the number of monks, their names, and the colours of their garments, what the monks' cells were made of, and the names of the pilgrims and the twelve saints who protected the square and the twelve roofs of the twelve houses, how big the chapel was, whether the street and square on the mountain were paved, and how wide and deep was the well in the square.
Twenty five years ago toward the end of spring the Commissar alighted from a small carriage in a village in the province of N -. He entered the cafe opposite, ordered a cup of coffee, and took out a cigar. Time did not seem to trouble him as he looked over the morning's papers and made idle conversation with the two children in the doorway, Danilo and Daryna, the proprietor's son and daughter.
Time did not trouble him the following day, as he rose late to take his breakfast in the same cafe. Nor did it trouble him the remainder of the week, or indeed, over the months and years that followed. Whatever the Commissar did must have been important, but it was not so important as his cup of coffee and his cigar. Letters arrived from the city -- not many. First they were in the drawer of his bureau; later he collected them into a file that sat on his bookshelf. And occasionally people visited, though they didn't stay for long. In the background, that unplanned, unheralded, oddly comforting thing -- life -- was happening somehow. Quietly and unobtrusively, it was neither quite existing nor quite starting to exist; it was just happening, taking up a small space in his room above the cafe, alongside the letters, the visitors and the cigars.
Stories like the Commissar's end in one of two ways; his ends in the second. One fine morning, the Commissar gets up as usual, but his world has changed. Nothing is decisively different; it's just an impression, but an impression strong enough to act upon. And so he walks past the cafe, down the street. He talks with Daryna's children at the wicket gate, and then he walks further still. Beside the churchyard he pauses a long while, but his destiny lies elsewhere. Now he has reached the end of the lane; now he is just turning off the end of the lane; now he is going along some footpath outside the village; who knows where it goes. Twenty five years, he thinks to himself, twenty five years; it's almost a life, well, much of a life, anyway. It's almost a lifetime; at least, some might call it a lifetime.
The Changing of the Light at Cafe Corrientes
At half past eleven sunlight is falling on the edge of the long varnished counter top of the Corrientes cafe on Avenida Carolinas. The piano strikes a familiar chord, not necessarily predictable in itself, since anything can begin in innumerable different ways, but, as it were, setting a well-defined stamp upon what must follow. The building site next door wearies for a moment of its daily ritual of drilling, hammering and shouting amid slowly moving clouds of dust among rubble, half-finished floors and spindly steel bars. Like a temporary truce, first the pneumatic drills clatter to a halt. A minute later the angle saws cease, until there is just the odd bit of hammering here and there, hammering on lengths of metal or wooden board, and finally silence. The hostilities have ceased. The men from the building site start to file into the cafe, glancing briefly but appreciatively at the plates of ham sandwiches stacked on the counter. There are five or six vacant tables set, and they sit down there, pulling the tables together. A young waitress comes to attend them, and most of them order coffee; no one orders anything to eat. One of the men - Giorgio - asks if the coffee comes with those little sweet biscuits, individually wrapped, or perhaps a macaroon. She says it does. Then Giorgio explains that it's his birthday, and asks if, as a favour, he can have two biscuits instead of one. Once she's gone away again, the men distribute the side plates, sharing out the fresh bread and drinking the water in the carafes on the tables. The waitress returns with the tray of coffee. Some of them ask for more glasses and another carafe or two of water; no one dares to ask for more bread. Giorgio gets his two biscuits, which he looks at with satisfaction. Then, making up his mind about something, he beckons the waitress closer. With an intuition, she glances back for a moment helplessly, but no one else needs her; she has no excuse but to listen to him. Two dozen bread rolls and a large piece of smoked pork, he explains, from Calle Moncayo; he'll pay her now and she can keep the change; it can't come to more than fifteen, and here's twenty, so that's not bad for a few minutes' work. But she is silent, not because she doesn't have things to say, but because this is the only way she dares to object. We're ordering coffee anyway, Giorgio presses on, it isn't as if anyone's going to be out of pocket. And don't worry, if the manager asks, we'll say we brought them with us; that's for us to worry about. Now Giorgio sees clearly the indecision in her face, and takes a new tack. You remind me of my sister, he says, she did these dead end jobs, well, of course you start out that way; at your age we're all in this world together. But don't do it for too long, a pretty girl like you. Far be it from me to insult a man I've never met, but these cafe owners are all the same: they use you. Do you get all the tips they leave for you? You know what I mean. Sometimes there's a table you've been serving all afternoon; they bowl in at midday and order aperitifs, then starters, then fish and then meat, then coffee and cognac. They sit around for hours; they sit around so long they start to get hungry all over again, and they're ordering dinner before you're finished with them. At least you'll get a good tip from them. But someone else clears the table, the manager does his rounds, and what do you get? You don't get what just went into his pocket, for sure. It was never there, he says. For sure! What's your name, he asks finally, with inspiration. Lucia, it's such a pretty name. So, Lucia, will you do this little thing for me?
Desultorily Lucia takes the money without looking at it. She goes back into the cafe and tells Valentina she's taking her break now, gets her sunhat and heads out in the direction of Calle Moncayo. When she arrives she will find they have sold out of bread rolls, and decide instead to go on a little further, rather than return with only half her errand complete. She will not reach Calle Zamora because on the way a blond man will enter the street ahead of her. Turning toward her, apparently in the best of humours, he will abruptly punch the man in front of her, and as he falls to the ground, a woman to her left, sensing that she has seen everything, will pull her hand imploringly, and a moment later a policeman in blue will arrive; the woman and the blond man have vanished and now Lucia needs to come to the station to make a statement: What was it that took place here?
In the cafe the workmen get more and more hungry. They start to smoke, though as a rule it's nicer to smoke after a meal rather than before. Periodically they glance again at the plates of sandwiches on the counter, nice big ones, buttered to the edges, with a good slab of ham inside. And sometimes when they look up one of the sandwiches is getting wrapped up in a paper napkin and carried out to the tables. The glances, for they are no more than that, are collective; but the hunger is individual, and does not unite them. Instead each resigns himself to it, a silent, personal quality which can never be openly expressed.
"You see, Giorgio," one jokes, "you let your soft heart get the better of you."
"I don't think so," says Giorgio.
"Well, it's your money, not mine."
"We'll see," says Giorgio.
Half an hour passes. One of the men finally gives in and orders a bowl of fish soup and an extra basket of bread. And then: "It's getting late …" One by one they get up, leaving a few coins for their coffee, walking slowly back to the building site next door. In truth, they are in no great hurry to return. Giorgio waits as long as he can, but eventually he gets up too when he hears the drills and the saws and hammers starting up again. Everything is fine; everything will be resolved tomorrow, and indeed that day does not seem so distant. But, connected as it is to this day that he now lives, the link between here and there suddenly seems so tenuous and unreal that almost anything could happen before the sun rises again at the other end of the world.
The Silence of the People
Deceit takes not two steps but only one, and deceit upon deceit is a gait of two left feet, betraying its method, while the intuition of what is true takes great flowing strides, both feet vanishing into the ether as they rise; indeed, it is a matter of no certainty whether by some leap they will ever return earthward again. Of this much the emperor had become convinced: the limits of his power were ultimately moral, and trying to achieve his aims by any kind of subterfuge or injustice would end in failure. In the end he was, like any ruler, a man filled with theories about what was right. Even his sceptre, it seemed to him, was more of an idea than an implement, something closer to a draughtsman's plan than the finished product of a foundry.
But the problem for the man of theories is that to govern by way of them demands practical engagement. A theory without a forum for debate can say and do nothing. How little the emperor had realised prior to his accession that all the theories in the world would never control the silence of a people, for, in his innocence, he had assumed that they must speak. Now he was emperor, and yet the realm had been wrenched away from him, recognising no authority beyond its own importunate voicelessness.
By lakes, on hillsides and in the mountains the emperor discussed these things with himself. And since these discussions seldom ended in agreement, the number of his interlocutors grew. This smaller realm was in every way truer to the expectations he had had of the larger realm, frequently ending with material changes in his outlook and his conduct. Indeed, as the years passed, the one usurped the other, and no one remembers the exact day the emperor vanished for good, a small and declining shape in a landscape of things, his moral compass guiding him resolutely along the path no human feet can follow.
Ali Hildyard lives in London. His story, "The House Above the Bay," appeared in Issue #62 of The Cafe Irreal, "The Number of the Heart" appeared in Issue #64, and "The Myriad Deaths of Michaela Andreskaya ... and two others" appeared in Issue #76. For "Nebo," the author used OpenAI's GPT-3 for writing assistance. You can contact him at: email@example.com.