Your mother warned you and you scoffed, but here you are, blue smoke rolling off your engine, at night, at the edge of a canolafield.
You think valve cover gasket. You think, Toast. It was a good car, peppy and fast, great gas mileage. You’d even considered giving it a name, but you didn’t, and so it deposited you here, on the black vacant rim of so much gold.
It’s a monk who retrieves you. He’s driving a surplus jeep, ghost outline of the postal eagle still visible on its side. He’s a monk in the old style, brown wool habit tied with a rope, tonsure or male pattern baldness, a pious pate. You first see him in the off-kilter headlamps of his ride, just a shadow, a man in a dress, and you know that if the man looked like his vehicle, you’d never get in—his eyes darting up and out, one dimmer, a half-wink.
Brother Janusz is up early to pray and make cheese. He tells you the Brothers of Jasper are known for their butter, their bread, and their cheese, white threaded blue like the wrist of a nun.
What you took to be canola belongs to the brothers, Janusz tells you. It is his job each morning to circle the holdings, check for damage or signs of intrusion. They harvest the seed, press it, market it in cork-stoppered glass bottles labeled rapeseed oil.
You look around the jeep. Its backside, where once mail was kept. is fitted with slots—maybe from the original retrofit when the vehicle was converted from post-Korean-era Army surplus for use on a rural mail service, or maybe, you surmise, something a brother fashioned with his blades from wood, then painted white. Slots hold implements, many of which exactly fit, like the narrow knife-sharp shovel used to dig up bulbs, or the hand rake, each of its three prongs silver from the whetstone. And there, in a slot, is the whetstone, ready to be pressed into use.
You have never farmed, or even gardened. In college, though, you lived in a rural home, pasture on the side, and big-eyed cows leaned over the fence to watch you sunbathe. Your mother worried, you so remote, but you reassured her. There are a bunch of nice ladies just next door. They keep an eye on things, you told her and she felt a little better, and you were never worried in the first place—never even locked the door, and why would you? Had someone kicked it in, there’d be no one but the Jerseys to hear.
You are surprised in the graying light to pass a field of flowers.
“Tulips,” Janusz says. “They’re nearly done. I believe they are at their prettiest at the end—so open.”
Are statements like this creepier or not creepy at all when a monk says them, you wonder, and you decide it depends on both the circumstances and the monk. But you see what he means—how the black hearts of the pistil and stamen stand open, exposed.
Janusz explains they used to harvest these flowers, take them as altar sprays to churches in the area—Catholic, but also some of the Protestant ones for a fee. They ran the gamut—Presbyterian, evangelical. “We all love to immerse ourselves in divine creation,” he says, and turns the wheel.
The bulbs grow where they were originally planted, and the tulips come back each year, though they are no longer collected. “A treat for the goats,” Janusz says, and you think it’s a little cruel, leaving them standing, stooped, as a snack. He has read goats don’t especially like tulips, but has found that they make quick work of them. Opportunity can make things attractive.
He tells you this as he circles around to the main building that serves as a dining hall (a refectory—that’s the word Janusz uses), a gift shop, and a dormitory for the men. He invites you to enjoy a meal as the brothers gather in the adjoining church to pray.
So many brothers. They file past you in the hallway on their way to matins. They greet you with warmth and sympathy. Janusz has already explained your situation briefly, and you hear him arranging with a wiry-looking monk who will check out your car after prayers, and then tow it, either to the monastery, if he can fix it, or to town, if he can’t. A very tall brother leads you to a table and puts a plate of food in front of you. Your predicament has made Janusz miss breakfast, and you feel a little guilty as you regard your steaming plate of biscuits and sausage gravy, your juice glass filled with amber. “We grow the apples ourselves,” the tall brother, Brother Albert, tells you. “They’re the best I’ve ever tasted.”
In moments, everyone is gone. There’s just you in a refectory eating gravy. Strange morning, you think.
You invite yourself to wander through what is, in fact, a spartan place—not much to see or, you realize, to harm or steal. You would have expected it to be replete with iconography—you’re not Catholic, but you have registered most Catholics’ appreciation for sculpture. And there is a crucifix in the hallway—Jesus in his final moment of agony, bright red blood streaming from his hands and head and feet. If you were devout, you’d prefer statues of Jesus doing tricks at parties—“Ta-daa! Look at all these loaves!”—then offering a glimpse up the winglike sleeves of his robe.
Catholics tend to study his final journey, the stages of the cross, and you think it may be their practice to find a stage they relate to and regard it closely for special meditation. But you relate to his life before, the itinerant preacher, moving from town to town, compelled by forces he can’t ignore. You’ve been doing that, although you’ve felt, unlike Jesus, that you’ve been moving not toward something, but away. And then your luck broke down, or your Volkswagen, and this may be it for you.
You’ve found the gift shop. It is full of boutique food items prepared and packaged on site. You see honey by the Brothers of Jasper. A fridge full of cheese. Syrup and jam. Where you would expect to see a somber label, a suffering savior on a bag of sunflower seeds, you see a cartoon figure of a jolly monk, his arms behind him, a look of mischief on his face.
In the window, where the sun might make it golden, are dozens of bottles of rapeseed oil, all sizes, with a sign declaring its health benefits, its Vitamin E and its plant sterols. You know it’s related to canola—Brother Janusz explained that canola is a recent innovation, named “can” for Canada and “ola” for oil. Canola was developed from rape. You think of how Janusz used the word comfortably and without nuance.
Only a bunch of men would embrace that name. The statistics say one in five women has been raped, but at night after a few drinks is when the stories come out. Friend after friend wasn’t physically strong enough, didn’t say “no” enough, lacked the rhetorical savvy to support her thesis that she didn’t want a man inside her. You don’t have to picture a stranger walking right through the door of an unlocked farmhouse and pulling a knife on a woman alone, beyond the worry of cows. Most rapes embarrass the rapee because they’re too tepid to make a story. There’s no drama—just uneven power and someone making use of an opportunity.
You wonder how the rape oil sells. It certainly looks pretty enough. The arguments are persuasive. You hear the soft steps of the brothers as they begin to file back in, but in smaller numbers. Many have gone to the outbuildings to begin the day’s work.
Janusz appears. He tells you that you can’t stay, offers a ride to town. You’re not sure what you were expecting. Did you picture yourself as a brother, picking apples, pressing seed, harvesting flowers?
As nice as the brothers seemed—breakfast, a tow—they are done with you. They don’t even have a plan for removing you; Janusz suggests he could drop you at McDonald’s and you could call someone. You have no one to call. The nearest potential someone is several states away, and your voice on the phone would surprise her, then not. She would presume some dire prediction came true, “Didn’t I tell you” always somewhere in her mouth.
Janusz opens your door like it’s prom night, then scurries to the driver’s side and gets in. He says apologetic words, talks about the insular life of the brotherhood. “We keep to ourselves, mostly,” he says. “Customers come and go, but we make an effort to live quietly and prayerfully, without distraction.”
You are a distraction, you understand. You distract Janusz. The idea prickles your skin. The jeep is small.
Janusz is driving down a different road than the one you came in on. Of course he knows the land better than anyone. This gravel track is a short way into town. One turn and the buildings of the monastery are out of sight.
You pass beehives—hundreds of them. You can’t even imagine the labor they represent. Not from the brothers. From the bees. They make food stores for winter privation, and along come the monks to undo what they’ve built for themselves.
Past the hives is a small outbuilding. Janusz has to go in for a moment—he doesn’t say why. You have a bad feeling about this—the man, the solitude, the stopping. He leaves the engine running, and it would be so easy for you to drive away, but there you sit, making those same arguments against taking control of your own life.
You lean over, reach behind the driver’s seat and into a slot, pull out the sharp narrow shovel and tuck it beside your door. Janusz emerges, a plastic container in hand. Inside it: honeycomb. A gift. You can chew it, he says—it’s just like candy. You recognize he is sorry for what he thinks he’s about to do.
And he moves the gearshift into “drive,” continues winding his way through the empty woods.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an editor of Gingko Tree Review, and the managing editor of ELJ Publications.