The Last Monk
The monk stared at the skulls, stacked from floor to ceiling in neat rows. The wan light of day's end filtered through the barred, glassless window, catching them in that dim moment between clarity and darkness. The skulls' shadowed, empty eye-sockets pierced the monk with their vacant gaze.
"I wish you could talk to me," he whispered under his breath, "and share with me your wisdom."
But, of course, the dead kept their own counsel.
Sometimes, as the wind blew through the Charnel House, the old bones would resonate with its passing. At times like these, it was almost as if the dead monks were whispering to him – whispering their forgiveness.
There was no wind today.
The monk's gaze came to rest on one particular skull. It had been there for almost two millennia – the first skull to be rested in the Charnel House.
"I have taken the name of this monastery's founder," he said with reverence, "as a sign of respect." He paused to consider. "Also, it seems right that it should end as it began. In the beginning, now and forever . . . Amen." He sighed. "I am now, as he once was, Justinian."
Brother Justinian crossed himself and got to his feet. Leaving the Charnel House, he made his way to the Chapel for his evening prayers. Then, after a meager meal of boiled vegetables and rice, he retired to his cell.
At three in the morning he awoke to silence. The alarm clock that he no longer needed, its dead face staring blankly, sat collecting dust in a corner. His body and mind were now so perfectly attuned to the routine.
He dressed and began the long climb.
It grew lighter as he neared the summit. He knelt down to pick up a weathered soft-drink bottle. It had been so many years since anyone other than him had climbed these steps, yet their refuse endured. He rolled the bottle in his hands.
A whole race of people, he thought, outlived by their garbage.
He tucked the bottle into his robes and continued the climb.
At the summit of Mount Sinai, Brother Justinian entered the little chapel. He lit two candles, their glow illuminating the faces of long-dead saints, staring down at him from the windowless walls. While the sun rose outside, he fell to his knees. As always, he prayed for forgiveness.
As he stepped out into the sunlight, he mused that it had been years now since he had actually seen a sunrise. He missed the colors and the slow break of light. He sighed and started the descent back to the monastery.
Back at the monastery he stopped at the bush, as he did every morning upon his return, and silently prayed for the flames of wisdom and forgiveness. There was not even a breeze to give movement to its leaves, silent since the days of Moses. Brother Justinian closed his eyes momentarily, the weariness of obligation weighing heavily on him, and imagined how the bush might appear if it were to ignite for him. Then, rubbing a hand over his eyes, he trudged off to do his daily chores – tending to the needs of the ancient buildings and their lifeless contents.
Soon it was time again for his evening visit to the Charnel House and the monks who had come before him. Such was Brother Justinian's routine – day in, day out, for the last one hundred and seventeen years since the last of the monks died.
But today was different. Today, as the last monk sat in the Charnel House and spoke to the old bones, the first monk spoke back.
A gust of wind whispered through the bones.
Within seconds Brother Justinian was on his knees.
"Forgive me! Forgive me!" he cried. "Forgive my people. We had no idea." Brother Justinian wept. "Thou shalt not kill," he sobbed. "Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill. Thou . . ." He choked back the tears. "But we did. Forgive us! We did not mean to."
But there was no more wind.
Brother Justinian prayed well into the night, then went straight to bed. Fasting was good for the soul. Penance. As he tossed and turned, images burned through the starscape of his dreams. Images of a lost race searching for a new home. Of huge vessels greeted with panic and suspicion upon their descent from the heavens. Of a slow learning of trust. And of eventual, unknowing betrayal. Of disease. And of slow, ghastly death.
Brother Justinian awoke at three in the morning . . . screaming.
Clouds gathered as he proceeded through his routine in a daze, his body going through the motions as his mind did its best not to think about anything.
That evening a storm thundered down as he went to the Charnel House to pray. The skulls wept as he did, gusts of wind blowing the rain through the window.
Brother Justinian did not go to his cell that night. Afraid to sleep, he stayed in the Charnel House and prayed all night. The storm eventually passed and the monastery was returned to still silence. And he continued to pray. Not for himself or his people, but for the billions of dead. The unsuspecting humans who had given his wandering race a home.
A sudden gust of wind disturbed the stillness.
Brother Justinian looked up into the eyes of the first monk's skull – sockets, which no longer seemed vacant, gazed back with benevolence. The air stilled.
"Thank you," whispered Brother Justinian. "Thank you." Tears welled in his eyes again. "Thank you." Slowly getting to his feet, he opened the door to be greeted by light. He had prayed all through the night and now the sun was just rising above the bush.
He watched in awe, entranced by its beauty, as the brilliant orb rose into the sky. His eyes watered with the brightness. Through the tears he noticed a small plume of smoke. He hastened to wipe them from his eyes. Within moments the light of the sun was dulled by a source far more dazzling. Brother Justinian smiled . . . his first smile in over a hundred years.
At last at peace, he went to the holy bush and embraced the flame.