Morelle Smith









In the Monastery


The building is a former monastery and it carries every echo, each low clack of wooden bar on each cell door as it falls against its wooden slot, each tap of knife on breadboard in the kitchen, each muffled footfall on the stone floors of the long vaulted corridors. And voices – oh, even the smallest whisper circulates through the corridors that wrap themselves around the cloister. Their rectangular embrace is marked at regular intervals, with the windows of the cells – light streams in, forming an aureole around the beige walls of the building, pitted and knobbled like thick lemon rind.

The cloister walls are decorated with cadrans solaires– sundials, striped with severe lines that indicate the hours, and dusted at the edges with symbols of the zodiac, dried leaves that have fallen as if by chance onto this grand design, this stark geometry of light and shade. But there is nothing apologetic about these scraps of signs, there is something of humility in those who drew the lines, shrinking them out of reverence for their precise perfection, their encompassing of all the heavens in their circle of images – the horned bull, the regal lion, the fish-tailed goat, the man who strides ahead, a clay pot so full of water on his shoulder that a few drops are spilling out, leaving a sparking trail of stars.

So the symbols grace the straight lines, like notes in music, keys to a symphony, if we know how to read them, signs of harmony so all-encompassing that we can only raise our heads in wonder at the night sky where these lights play as if on the surface of an ocean. Our feeble calculations grow out of these paint splashes, these curls of dried leaves, these tiny stitches in the cloth that covers us, and tugs at us like tides, while we wave our thoughts and calculations like oars against the swell of sea, sails to catch the wind.

Beyond the cloister too the life of things is not so much hidden as demanding – clouds have caught on the mountain tops and slip down the sides, a grey and misty adoration, while we – we are constrained by the rocky paths, winding back and forth, laboriously toiling up the mountain slope. Or catching our breath on the descent into the deep gorge of the Roya, which runs pale green from the colour of the stone that lines its bed.

Cedric tells me that he explored the whole building, almost as soon as he arrived.

The corridors, yes, they are wonderful, he says, and I like the cells that look out onto the cloister rather than the garden, but the best room of them all is for the linen. The walls are lined with wooden shelves, the clean linen piled in soft folds, the scent of freshly ironed cotton sheets. And the window looks south, the sun shines in all afternoon, at least it would if the sun ever returns to these mountains – you look out onto the valley falling away beneath, a glimpse of road, and the river, and there is the mountain opposite…

But the room further up, the one in the corner, I don’t like it at all.

Just above the doorway in that room, there’s a fresco, faint beneath a layer of whitewash but still visible – a skull and crossbones.

And people have slept in that room, imagine that! I couldn’t get out fast enough…

But what is strange, Cedric goes on, is that normally I don’t think at all about God or religion but here, in this place where monks lived and prayed for centuries, the walls are covered with sundials marking the passage of time by the shadow of the sun. So you might think about the sun soaring high above the mountains, through an endless blue, though not today of course, the sky full of clouds  falling down the mountain slopes like limp flags, before it began to rain.  But on sunny days you might think about the grandeur of nature you might think about the sun as life giver. But these sundials make me think our lives are sustained by nothing but time and it runs out like a ball of string, and after that there is nothing, emptiness, and in this gap, this void, we’re greeted only by a grinning skull wielding a sickle….

He pauses.

Since I am here, I think about God and religion all the time.

The only sound in the kitchen is the battering of the rain cascading from the roof and dripping from the gridwork of poles and vine stalks over the terrasse. In summer the vine leaves will make floating, shifting patterns of light and shade. The rain forms a steady stream, thundering on the metal chairs and tables outside.

And while time and your life, they are both running out, the cloister is enclosed, says Cedric, there’s a high wall around the garden, the mountains are all around you, hemming you in…

But the door is open, you can go out at any time…

Yes, but – to go anywhere you have to walk all the way through the village to the train station…and in this weather…

To live enclosed by these mountains and to think about God and religion all the time oh no, that is too oppressive.

Three of us, Bernard, Cedric and myself, are sitting at the large wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, also with a vaulted roof. The walls are lined with shelves for dishes and hooks for pots and pans.

Set in one of the walls, at chest height, there’s a wooden square which forms a hatch between the kitchen and the corridor that leads into the refectory. This is a rectangular room, three of the walls lined with benches and massive wooden tables, gleaming in the light from the windows in the far wall. These windows reach from floor almost to ceiling but the walls are so thick that the light first has to cross the alcove made by the depth of the wall. So it seems to travel from a great distance, this thick light crowding through the glass divided up into small panes, stuffed wads of woollen light, dusting and drenching the air that it passes through, polishing the wooden table tops in their embrace.

When he first arrived here, Cedric strode through the corridors, left dishes by the sink rather than put them in the dishwasher, smoked openly in the kitchen, when you’re only supposed to smoke outside. He did not smile much, questioned us all on our backgrounds and beliefs, challenging us on why we held them. After a few weeks here his stride along the corridor is almost nonchalant, he tidies the kitchen, he helps prepare meals, he asks us if we want any more to eat, he smiles and apologizes for talking so fast, he repeats what he has said, so that we understand, slows down his rapid talk. Sometimes, just for the pleasure of seeing us falling off our chairs with laughter, he speaks in English with such a strong accent that it reminds us of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films and he doesn’t even have to try, whenever he starts to speak, we are already laughing.

Something in his face reminds me of the way the light in the refectory gains momentum and fans out as it is pushed through the alcove of the wall, arriving as if with a burst of triumph on the polished wooden floor.

Bernard says that he was here one time on his own, no-one else in the building, stairs and corridors wrapped in a soft blanket of prayer against the winter chill outside, and Bernard heard the loud slam of a closing door.

Perhaps the wind says Cedric.

Oh no, Bernard says, there was no wind that night, nothing at all. Normally I don’t lock my door but that night I did.

Cedric smiles, but says nothing. He says he is an atheist because it cannot be proved that God exists – and he does not believe in ghosts either.

But in Bernard’s ghost, yes of course, yes I believe, he laughs.

But – to live enclosed by these mountains and to think about God and religion all the time oh no, that is too oppressive, he repeats. Perhaps because he thought he’d spoken too quickly the first time and I hadn’t caught what he had said.



















About me:


Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, I grew up in both urban and rural environments and the pattern of moving between these seems to have persisted. The oscillation has increased to include movement between elsewhere and home. What was at first merely a dream, to travel, has become a pattern, a rhythm in my life. Since the eighties, I have been a professional writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Links to some of my writing can be found on the page WORK ON THE WEB. Cover photo – Evening, Lake Butrint, Albania


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