That slow deliberate voice. And only one person could call her Rainshine. She was at the Paragraphe bookstore in downtown Montreal on her noon-hour break and her heart started into a wild thumping. Five years ago he’d been wearing a long black robe.
October was moody. One day was filled with warmth and sunshine and glorious colour, the next shuddered with rain and a steely wind that crept inside your bones and left them creaking. The day Roxanne left the city was a cocky mixture of both.
The sleek Mustang convertible, a car for a proud young office manager, headed southeast, the metropolitan colour palette of glass and cement becoming the tended grass of suburbia, which in turn shifted to used car lots the size of football fields, all of which gave way to the grazing lands of the Eastern Townships. Swollen bruised clouds clotted and sank lower and rain descended, the even patter of the drops on the windshield trance inducing. Driving through that downpour had a certain rightness to it. It was like heading into the future, steering into a watery unknown but an exciting unknown because where you were going was safe. So you thought.
The clouds broke apart, sunshine creeping through the openings. She rolled down the window to let in some fresh air. The birds had started singing. It sounded and smelled like her youth back on the farm. How she used to like walking in the woods after a rain! The dampness smothering the sound of her footsteps. Even the smells of the forest changed; they went from blithe to thick, from light and green to heavy and orange.
Turning off the main highway onto a rural road, the car started into a steep descent. A lake was now visible, Lake Memphremagog, cuddled up against the wooded cliff of a mountain and sparkling like a jewel in the rough.
This road, like a narrow grey necktie, led to the monastery.
Whatever possessed you?
The words rang out caustically in her head, mocking her superior decision-making powers, as though a lapse in her mind had blocked out her best instincts.
You could leave now. Tell them it was all a big mistake.
A colleague in the investment firm, needing to unwind after last spring’s financial reports had been issued, had gone to Saint Benedict Abbey. Normally at the mention of a monastic retreat, Roxanne would have rolled her eyes and tuned into another channel, however, in the throes of an agonising predicament of her own, she would have given anything for the peace she imagined in this place. Neither was a break in store that summer—the stock market didn’t fall into its usual seasonal lull and predictions that shouldn’t have gone awry did, causing important clients, their money at stake, to turn nasty. Starting her own investment business was now simply indulging in caprice. By the time fall arrived, the entire thrust of her life was on shaky ground. Not wanting to overspend on an exotic holiday, she’d booked a two-week stay at the abbey.
And here she was, knocking faintly on the door to the women’s villa and not entirely bonded to the wisdom of her holiday choice. The nunnery was off to the north side of the grand centrepiece of this woodland estate, the grey stone abbey where the men lived.
Sister Claire led the way into the bowels of the villa, her long skirts swishing, rosary beads rattling. Roxanne shifted her attention to the hallway walls where a framed parade of no-nonsense women kept a vigil on the traffic, their stern and wise visages as serene as they were thunderous. The nun stopped at the door to a spacious office. “Mother Rachel, Miss Monette has arrived.”
Adjusting her skirts about her, Mother Rachel segued through the room like a huge black swan and came gliding to a halt in front of the newest guest at the inn. She had a large pink face, a freckled nose protruding from the middle of the pinkness. Roxanne wondered how far the chin on that soft face would plunge without being pasted to the ceiling by a wimple.
“Everyone here observes a vow of silence,” the head of the villa said after they’d seated themselves. “Except, of course, if we’re dealing with the public. During counselling, for example…”
“Oh, I didn’t realise…”
“Didn’t realise what, dear?”
“That there would be counselling.”
“It’s not an obligation, but should you want to meet one of the monks while you are here…”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll pass on that. I think just being here will suit me fine, Mother Rachel. Just resting and wandering about. It will be like living a dream.”
“Of course, dear. Of course, it will. You came to the right place. However, should you change your mind, that happens you know, or should you have any other questions, the door to this office is always open.”
In the middle of the week, on Wednesday, her fourth day at the abbey, having put it off as long as possible, Roxanne found herself once again in the nunnery office. “Fine, thanks. I’m just fine, Mother Rachel. The quiet has been wonderful,” she said, and knew immediately the woman didn’t believe her.
“Silence can be deafening. Many find it too difficult to be quiet for an extended period of time.” Mother Rachel settled back in the chair behind her massive desk and interlocked her fingers in front of her chest.
“The other day,” Roxanne began, her voice squeaking onto a higher register, “the other day when I arrived…” She went on as serenely as possible, battling the dry passages in her larynx. “I’ve been thinking… Could you… Do you think you could you fix me up… Could you arrange a meeting with this counsellor person? One or two sessions will suffice. I mean there’s no real reason for it, is there.”
From time to time, one of Mother Rachel’s fingers lifted.
“There’s no hurry. It’s such short notice and I don’t see a burning need … not like a burning bush or anything…” She laughed uneasily at her silly joke. “Just one or two sessions, that will be fine, to do whatever you do, whatever he does, to rekindle, you know, to…” She stopped, aware of how foolish she sounded. It embarrassed her, this loss of the command over herself that she prided in her work, this ability she had to remain unruffled at the height of million-dollar bidding wars. And here in this modest office in the woods, she’d been ambushed by a woman who was no more threatening than a ball of yarn.
Saint Benedict Abbey was multi-towered and multi-windowed. Turrets and antechambers sprawled over the ground in the medieval fashion of European castles, not so ornate, however, as to be un-Canadian or immodestly extravagant; it looked every bit as functional as a dishwasher.
At two o’clock the next day, Roxanne stood face to face with the door to Room 111. She smoothed her skirt with her fingers, took a deep breath, and rapped.
Brother Leonard had the tall square build of a refrigerator. Around the waist of his gown was a black cloth girdle and on a chain at his neck was a small silver cross. With an ushering gesture, he welcomed her into a small high-ceilinged room.
“Excuse me,” she said, “you don’t look like your typical monk.” What did I just say? The other monks she’d seen wandering about the property had soft milk faces, which would be quick to burn, she was sure, but this monk’s face was different. There was a presence about it that was hard to define, a hardiness in spite of the pallidness. If he was out in the sun the skin would probably turn a warm sienna colour in no time at all and morph him from an anonymous religious underling into a football hero … except for the black dress … and the uneven teeth… She stopped herself from too much speculation.
“Did I scare you that much?”
“Oh, that’s not what I meant. Not at all. I thought monks were people who tried to make themselves disappear and become nameless.” What? It seemed like her whole body had gone into shock. She was intrigued though, her eyes and ears seriously alert even though nothing was perilous here, only talking, talking with a Hollywood leading man in religious garb, if he fixed his teeth.
Brother Leonard could have installed himself behind a desk, but he chose instead a brown leather armchair with a low seat and puffy arms and sat facing Roxanne in a similar chair. The first meeting was spent in getting to know one another. Leonard had a manner of speaking in which his words were spaced out, and he urged her to drop the Brother title. It was like a loud obstacle between them, he said. He learned that Roxanne’s brother had been killed in a hunting accident at the age of fifteen, that she and her mother were not on good terms, and he detected a difficulty with her father because she shifted in her seat when his name was mentioned and said very little about him. And the pressure at work was becoming unbearable, she told the monk.
Part way into the session, Roxanne surprised herself by breaking into tears. To have a willing listener, one who didn’t know you from Eve, one who wouldn’t gossip behind your back, one who might turn the world around under your feet, solve the dilemma of your life, because there was always that hope, was overwhelming. And the release poured down her face.
“What is in your mind to have all these things happen to you?”
It felt like a slap in the face even though Roxanne didn’t know what things he was talking about, having barely had time to sit down, let alone get her mind in gear. She assumed he was referring to yesterday when she fell apart but she hadn’t been entirely forthcoming.
It was Friday afternoon. Brother Leonard stood looking out the window at a tribe of snow geese on the lawn at the back of the abbey.
“Could you be a little more specific, coming out of the blue like that?”
Leonard seated himself across the room and spoke in that unruffled manner of his. “Whose mind do you think it is that creates your problems if it’s not your own?”
“Hold it right there. Sure I have problems. Who doesn’t? But I can handle mine quite capably, thank you. I don’t know where you’re coming from, saying something like that. I don’t think my best friend would say that.”
“Do you have a best friend?”
“Why am I being attacked? I don’t see what that has to do with anything anyway.” Roxanne had many acquaintances but not friends who shared their ups and downs, laughing and crying together. “I didn’t come here for this.” She hiked the sleeves of her cardigan up to her elbows.
“Why did you come?”
“You know, I can see why you’re a monk. You can’t get along with regular people. You irritate them. And if you want to know,” she added, undeniably vexed at the monk’s impertinence, “I came here to get some rest from my job in the city.”
“It causes you stress.”
Didn’t I say that already? She strained to keep her temper in check. “Yes, it’s very stressful. I came here because I wanted the peace and quiet of the countryside. And right now I’m finding the experience anything but restful.”
“You grew up in the country.”
“I did. And I miss walking through the woods and hearing the sounds.”
“There. You have recognised what brought you peace at one time.”
“Would you like that in your job?”
“Who wouldn’t want peace in their job?” Who does this guy think he is? “But that’s impossible, my company is in the stock market business.”
“Everything finds a way. Everything is an expression of how you see yourself.”
“Here we go again.”
“And I can see you don’t think very highly of yourself.”
“And don’t expect to see me back another time.” She stood, walked across the room, and strode down the corridor, head high, black hair wheezing, arms swinging, heels snapping on the stone floor. The great door to the abbey slammed shut. She hadn’t asked for counselling to be hen-pecked by someone whose knowledge of the real world was questionable. Cloistered up as he was, what did he know of life? She cursed herself for not returning home on that first day.
A formidable-looking book, Confessions by Augustine of Hippo, lay open across Brother Leonard’s lap, the covers bound in heavy brown leather. It was Monday afternoon, two o’clock.
At ten minutes past the hour, Roxanne installed herself in the chair by the window and launched into what was on her mind. “I think I’m a good person.”
Knowing a speech was imminent, Leonard reached across to the desk and set Saint Augustine on the top.
“I try not to hurt anyone,” she continued, tenaciously asserting her case. “I like people. I’m fairly intelligent and I don’t look so bad. I’m at the management level in a man’s world of investments and I give my best effort in whatever I do. You don’t know, but I’ve made something of myself and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.” She looked at the figure across from her.
“That’s not quite what I meant by thinking highly of yourself.” Leonard crossed his long legs under his robe, revealing a patch of beige sock, an ankle bone protruding through the material.
Noticing the incongruities — the delicate ankle for such a large man and the colour departure for religious socks — Roxanne switched her attention to the other foot. A black sock. “Then what do you mean?” she said, quickly refocusing and registering her pettiness at the back of her brain. “Do you think I have a low opinion of myself because one day I happen to be miserable?”
“I didn’t say you were miserable.”
“All right, I think it was a mistake to come today. I thought perhaps I misunderstood what you said, and I came to give you another chance. But you’re just as callous as you were. This whole trip was a bad idea. I positively did not expect to have my self-respect trampled to bits by a disagreeable monk.”
“Perhaps I was too abrupt. It would be a sad thing if you left now.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t be able to push me over the edge.”
“It would be sad because you are so close.”
“So close to what?”
“To surrendering. To allowing yourself to wallow in the mud without denying it.”
“Come again?” Roxanne had trouble to imagine what wallowing in the mud had to do with anything in her life. More unintelligible monk-talk.
“I believe it’s no accident that you’re here.”
“I’m not so sure. You know, Brother Leonard…”
“I thought we agreed to dispose of the title.”
“I changed my mind. You know, Brother Leonard, you’re not the easiest person in the world to get along with. Don’t you people have a code of honour? Telling me flat out that I created my problems and had no self-respect? Did you think I would take that lying down? How did you expect me to react?”
“Just as you did.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You can call me a turd if you like.”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Sometimes you need a shock to get past your old ways of thinking.”
“But what if I had gone home?”
“I gambled.” He spoke with an uneasy smirk. Poking fun at himself wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Nor was gambling. She was the gambler. But what about himself? Wasn’t he one also? Come to think of it, weren’t we all gamblers? Partaking in one gigantic poker game, a lifetime, wanting to win that elusive card of well-being? Lewis Carroll knew all about it when he sent Alice through the looking-glass to encounter a giant chess game in progress, the pieces alive and all too human.
Roxanne threw back her head and laughed. The sound that came out was more astonished than amused, as someone would be had she looked out the window to see a sister being pooped on by a penguin. At this point, however, she was more intrigued than hurt. It wasn’t everyone who could play such a trick on her and get away with it. “So what did you really want to say?”
Leonard was visibly relieved. “You’re reaching for something, something that will fulfill you, but what is that something? True well-being is not based on the wants of the personality but on the wants of your higher self. To get in touch with that part you need only to open to it.”
“Simple for you.”
“All that is required is some patience, the same kind of patience you need when attuning yourself to a new set of circumstances.”
“If you say so.”
“Then imagine along with me.” Leonard adjusted his posture, slid back in the chair, and placed his feet flat on the floor. “We’ll take a little journey. A journey into our selves. We’ll go into the heart of our minds. Are you with me?”
What’s at the heart of a mind? To humour the monk, Roxanne shifted into the same position and closed her eyes. The eyelids, seemingly of their own volition, closed only part way and began to flutter. What she encountered behind them was brightness, not darkness, and a liquid feeling began to wash over her, glowing at the same time. “Rainshine,” she whispered. “It feels like the sun is raining.” The sensation was oddly joyful and she found herself thinking that her life was about to change.
Leonard smiled. Rainshine, he’d remember that.