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Silence

The bar was noisy, so noisy you could hardly hear yourself think. I’d been forced inside by the warm driving rain of the monsoon season, and while it was not exactly to my tastes it had not seemed an entirely unpleasant place to whittle away some time. I had often found that these type of establishments, low ceilinged and packed tight with nefarious characters, good spots for meeting interesting characters. That is, when you can hear well enough to speak to any of them.

As the night drew on, and the crowds and the din lessened slightly, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me at the bar. He was young, perhaps in his late twenties, although I had initially thought him rather older. There were never less than three large drinks in front of him, so he evidently had something to drink to. He had a strange air about him, at once harried and lacklustre. He seemed like someone who was fleeing from something while being entirely sure that he would never, ever outrun it.

“Bit noisy in here, isn’t it?” I more or less shout in his ear after a few minutes of pleasantries.

“That’s ok for me. I’ve had enough of silence. That’s one of the reasons I come here.”

His accent was American and well educated, somewhere from the West Coast most likely. He seemed like he might once have been the laid back surfer type, but had lost that sense of ease some time ago. His eyes were sharp and darting, and his hands grasped his drink a little too tightly.

‘Ah, how so?’

And out poured his story, tumbling from him as if he was confessing to a priest or a policeman. The story he told was unbelievable, but no less incredible for it. It was true to him, and that’s what mattered.

—- 

I was raised religious, the good old fashioned type. A nice suburban church, but with a priest who wouldn’t spare the fire and brimstone. That scared me as a kid but by the time I went to college I was fairly well over it. I was into the whole young hippy college music scene thing for a few years, and stayed well away from the God stuff. I got interested in Buddhism after I’d moved past that. I guess a spiritual upbringing never leaves. After a while I realised I’d missed my chance with college, and my music career was going nowhere. The truth is I wasn’t really that good.

I found everything about eastern philosophy fascinating. The esoteric language, the deceptive simplicity, the way of just, sort of letting go of the things that had passed you by. And I suppose some of it was falling back on old comforts. I mean, it’s not all that different from good old-time fire and brimstone Christianity.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. That eastern religion is the touchy-feely type where what goes around comes around, and everyone just gets on without all that nasty pain and violence and torture. That’s what lots of people think. That’s what I thought at first. But no, every society has its demons.

The punishment for gossiping? Having your tongue ripped out over and over by animal headed demons. Guess what happens if you waste food? Aeons of being crushed by rocks. There are literally hundreds of circles of Hell. Dante’s Inferno looks like a summer camp compared to some of this stuff.

I wandered around Asia on my parents’ dime for a few months after I left college and realised that I wasn’t going to become a rock star. Eventually I found this really welcoming temple, and it just felt like home. I studied there for a while, they had copies of some scriptures in English, and amazingly the monks suggested that I get ordained. I know, I know, becoming a monk probably seems like a pretty big step to take. The truth is it was good to feel like I was wanted somewhere. Beyond that, I just wanted to achieve something in my life. I was a mediocre musician, and a mediocre student. This was my chance to achieve something extraordinary. It feels good to have something to believe in when you don’t believe in yourself, and enlightenment in this life beats waiting around to die and go to Heaven. So I had my head shaved, I said the words I had to say and I had my scalp burned 9 times with incense. It hurt like hell, but no big deal. My hair covers it up pretty good now.

The temple was ancient, and isolated. It was perched on a plateau jutting out from the hills, flanked on both sides by towering mountains, dotted with trees. It looked down on these long, deep forests. The sunlight bounced off the mountains, bathing the temple in a warm, welcoming glow. At points the light would border on blinding, brighter than any place should be. It gave the place an otherworldly glow, the way painters always imagine Heaven or the Elysian Fields. The entrance to the temple was lined with well-tended cherry blossom trees. It was a beautiful place, classical and extraordinary all at once. In the summer the forests beneath us spread out like a lush green carpet, and you could really believe you were at the top of the world.

I was ordained in the spring, and after a few peaceful months of study and prayer I decided to take a three-month vow of silence. I can see that that seems like a long time for me to go without talking, but it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. I was eager to impress, and eager to show my faith and my commitment. Also, since I barely spoke the local language I hadn’t had much conversation as it was. Few of the monks could speak much English. I began my vow just as autumn was drawing to a close.

Silence can be a good thing. Silence can be suffocating. I prefer noise now. Silence is what happens when noise dies. It’s the sound of something leaving the world. Monastic silence, prayer, meditation. It’s a way of looking into your own mind, your own soul. But when you look into your own mind, I mean really look, you see nothing. Nothing, or much worse.

My drinking companion had been talking at an easy, conversational pace. His mannerisms and alcohol consumption betrayed some anxiousness, but he looked for all the world like someone telling an anecdote to a new friend. At this stage, he began to visibly wilt, crumble and withdraw into himself. I moved closer to him as his voice quietened, so that we were huddled around the candle on our table like two frightened wanderers on a dark night. The sarcasm and asides ceased as he began to recount his experiences. My interest grew, along with his clear discomfort.

Along with silence, there’s isolation. I could communicate with sign language and some crude written characters without breaking my vow, but unnecessary communication was strongly discouraged. Instead, I was supposed to spend my days in silent prayer and reflection. This would be a tiny step towards enlightenment, but a huge step towards finding meaning in my life. It would be proof that I had found my route to happiness, at least a start on the path to fulfilment. I spent my days studying, reading and praying. I usually helped with the garden, and took my meals with the other monks. During the vow, I was to spend my time on silent study and reflection. This level of isolation is difficult for anyone, but many monks endure feats of mental and physical endurance in order to develop spiritually. Some run barefoot for hundreds of miles, some say the name of Buddha hundreds of thousands of times. I thought of this in the same way. It was something I had never done before, and I relished the challenge.

The doubt crept in, along with the winter. It started off small and niggling. I had desperately wanted to comment on the changes in the scenery. Something as banal as that, talking about the weather! They say that most communication is verbal, and that’s true even when you’re on your own. This kind of experience is supposed to give you a tremendous sense of calm, to allow your negativity to fade away into blissful nothingness. That’s not how it was for me. Where are your negative emotions supposed to go? It hurts, having things in your head that you want to get out. It physically hurts, like an ache that starts in your mind and works its way through your body. All your doubts and fears and shame rattle around your head, and start infecting you. They make your throat dry up and your muscles twinge every time you realise that you’re not cut out for this. These feelings work their way into your marrow, and make you want to scream. But you say nothing, of course. I was determined to succeed at this. I managed to work through the pain and doubt, I told myself it was all part of the process. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! So I persevered, I levelled out, I kept going. Then they came.

His voice was oscillating between self-pity and rage, but with a certainty and authority which made his every word believable. The bar was less busy now, and the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We could hear the wind whistling through the narrow streets outside, and our surroundings were so silent that I fancied I could hear beer fizzing in glasses and the quickening beat of my companion’s heart. With this, his voice grew quieter and weaker, although his conviction rarely wavered.

Have you ever heard of the “komusō” They were wandering monks, not an unusual thing in the East. They were known for playing beautiful musical pieces on the shakuhachi flute. Not all monks believed in silence, and some pursued meditation through noise. They were often spies and masterless former samurai in Japan before they were eventually outlawed and abolished. But that’s not what’s most remembered about them.

Komusō monks wore a huge straw helmet which completely covered their faces, indicating their lack of ego. It was impossible to see who was inside these helmets, which I guess is the reason spies were so fond of the disguise. The type of music they played is really quite beautiful, and has been enjoying some kind of resurgence in Japan recently. The whole straw helmet thing has not.

I woke up early one cold morning greeted by a new sound, very different from the usual chiming bell. It was somehow a quiet cacophony, low in volume but so rich in tone and complexity that it already seemed to fill not only my head, but my body too. As I lay in bed I could make out a lilting, circuitous tone. The noise swelled as if it grew nearer. Perhaps it was because I was so accustomed to silence that the music gave me a powerful and nearly overwhelming sense of synaesthesia. The noise seemed to fill the room with colour and taste and smell, offsetting my drab surroundings and making a mockery of my acetic lifestyle. This was not unpleasant at first, but as it continued to build it began to overwhelm my senses completely. The smells and the tastes turned to burnt embers in my mouth, and the room glowed ominously even as I squeezed my eyes shut. The sound built and built in rich spirals of tone, but with a cadence more like screaming that music.

The music stopped abruptly, and I snapped out of my reverie like I was coming up for air. I heard monks talking in low whispers, and the crunching of sandals on the first few inches of new snow. I went to the window of my small, cell-like room to try and see who had produced this terrible, transcendent music. I saw three of my fellow monks walking hurriedly towards a distant figure. They stopped near the figure, near enough to talk but further away than you would usually stand from a person. I could make out a tall figure with something on its head, but the snow was blocking my view. I quickly dressed and moved outside, stopping at the side of the tree-lined path to our main temple building and lighting an incense stick to place on an alter. My hands were shaking, and not just from the cold. The strange group moved towards me slowly, the three monks in front and the stranger walking just behind. I could make out the long flowing robe which indicated that the person was some kind of monk. It was ornate, but so long and loose that it trailed carelessly and uncomfortably in front and behind of the figure. He held a long flute in his hand, the kind that would traditionally have been made of bamboo and more recently made of plastic or alloy. It glinted even at this distance, and looked the colour of bone when it breaks through the skin. As they moved closer I could hear the crunching of the monks’ footsteps on the snow, along with a strange new sound. I had been frightened, bizarrely, to look properly at this strange scene. Instead I had been sneaking low, sideways glances while pretending to pray. I finally looked this mysterious new monk up and down properly, and nearly dropped the incense I had in my hand. On his head was a large helmet, completely encircling his head and neck, and completely hiding his face. I assumed it was a ‘he’ due mainly to his robes. As the group came closer still I realised that the helmet was not made of wicker or bamboo, but of rust bitten iron. This must have been impossibly heavy, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether any human being could carry this while they wandered through these mountains.

I had spent quite a long time in near silence by this point, and I felt like this had given me some sort of hypersensitivity to sound. The temple was a quiet place, but it felt as if this stranger and his music had brought to live a symphony around me. The crunch of the snow underfoot, the burning of the incense. I could hear the snow fall, and the blood pumping through my veins. The group passed by me, the monks with their heads down and the stranger facing forward. As they passed, all of the sounds were drowned out by a hideous grinding sound. It felt like fingernails on a blackboard, like a knife scraping off glass, like rats gnawing through bone. I realised with horror that this sound was coming from the huge, metal helmet. My first thought was that it was slowly constricting on the man’s head, agonisingly crushing his skull to dust like some medieval torture instrument. A moment later, I had the saner thought that maybe there were overlapping plates inside the helmet, designed to create this noise as some kind of test. Maybe this was penance, or the flip side of my vow of silence. I was full of revulsion, and pity. Hearing the sound for seconds had harrowed me. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through. The procession disappeared into the temple, and I slinked back to my room in a daze. The last thing I noticed before I went was that the mysterious monk didn’t seem to have left any footprints.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy getting to sleep that night. In my fitful half-sleep I could hear that horrible, crushing, grinding sound. It grew and grew, until I felt like it was me inside that helmet. It began to press in closer until it pinched the side of my head. I felt its crushing weight, until my bones began to crack and splinter. I woke up to the sound of frenzied footsteps in the front courtyard, and that eerie, haunting music. My sheets were soaked through with cold sweat, and my whole body shook. A monk, one of the ones who had been able to speak a little English with me, was stumbling out into the snow. Hunched over and moving with an uneven lope, he looked more like an animal than a man. He looked frenzied, like he was horribly ill or terrified. I watched out of the window as he fell into the snow and started devouring it. He just kept packing more and more snow into his mouth, forcing more in before he could swallow what he had already eaten. It spilled out and ran down his face and chest, and he just kept stuffing more and more in. I could hear his body trying to force it back up even as he swallowed more. He was choking, drowning, and still he wouldn’t stop. I wanted to run outside and shake him, I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. As I watched, his neck seemed to shrink and contract as if an invisible collar was being tightened around his neck. Have you ever seen the pictures of people who have worn neck rings for so long that their necks have become impossibly narrow and tall? It was like that, but so much worse. I could just make out one side of his face in the moonlight, one eye bulging horribly as his neck tightened and grew, his face contracting and his sight never leaving the endless see of snow in front of him. He was possessed by the insane hunger. The music built, insistent and unbearable, to a crescendo that sounded like it could play into infinity. Blood was flowing from the monk’s nose, and I could make out a long red tear coming from his eye. He spluttered and fell, face first in the bloody snow. I looked up at the steps of the temple and saw three monks standing silently, impassive and unmoving. The music stopped, I swallowed a scream in my throat and fainted.

This was when I stopped believing the man, but we were long past the point where I could have stopped him from talking. While I doubted the truth of his story, to say the least, I could not doubt his conviction. He spoke with fear, he spoke with bitterness and he spoke with certainty. I knew that whatever this story was, it was more than just a tall tale from an eloquent drunk.

I woke up with my head pounding and crawled into the corner of my room. After a few minutes I managed to convince myself that I had been seeing things. The silence or the loneliness or the restricted diet, something had messed with my head and made me see these horrible things. Nevertheless, I decided the go and try to find someone. I was unwell, and couldn’t be alone any longer. I put on my long robes and hurried out into the corridor which I shared with several other monks. It was deserted, and the air around me felt dead. I moved quickly out towards the courtyard, knowing that somewhere someone would be awake, even in the middle of the night. The snow had stopped falling, but lay deeply on the ground. The full moon backlit the temple huge pagoda against the mountains, making it look like a warning sign, like some ancient lighthouse. I ran up the steps and into the main building, feeling exposed in the wide courtyard. The corridor was lined with huge statues of deities and daemons, leaning in imposingly over everyone who walked through. Some of the statues had the typical Buddhist faces; some passive, some smiling, some laughing. Other ones were not as comforting. Four armed warriors holding long, cruelly curved swords. Faces snarling, or carved into a rictus of pain and wrath. Eyes brightly painted in a way which made the faces faintly outlandish in the daytime, but disturbing as hell on a night like this. My nerves were frayed almost to breaking point by the time I heard the chanting. It sounded like a huge group of my fellow monks, maybe all of them, were chanting in the prayer room ahead. I would only have to reach the end of the corridor and dart across another short courtyard to reach them. But then I heard the music, drifting towards me between the rhythmic chanting. My heart leapt in my chest, but I propelled myself forwards. Any thoughts of turning back dissipated as I felt the statues closing in on me from above. I kept my eyes lowered and straight ahead but could see the distorted faces from the corner of my eye. I could feel their eyes following me, feel them pressing in. I was over halfway through the corridor and could feel them closing in ahead and behind. I thought that if I hesitated or turned back I could be trapped there with them forever. The sound of chanting and the hypnotic, hideous melody were joined by a new sound. I could hear the creaking sound of ancient material ripping apart, of plaster falling away from some other, older material. I could feel the cold air at the end of the corridor when I heard the thud of a gigantic footstep behind me. It was joined by others, and others still, when I burst out into the cool and still courtyard. I ran across the courtyard in seconds, with nowhere to go but forward. I didn’t look back, frightened of what was behind me and downright terrified of the idea that there might be nothing there at all. I was so focused on making contact with some kind of reality that I barely slowed down when I saw the flecks of red on the snow of the steps. The huge doors to the prayer room were open slightly, and I peered in as I attempted to gently push them open. The monks were circled around the altar, chanting with a vacant look in their eyes. Some were on their knees while others prone in front of the altar, still and silent. The stranger was on the altar, but he wasn’t wearing the horrible metal helmet anymore. His robes were thrown open to show a hideously tall and thin body, with a drooping distended stomach covered in deep and angry scars. The skin under the scars bubbled and stretched, as if tiny creatures inside were fighting to get out. He, it, I don’t know what, held the long flute in his hand, but the music wasn’t coming from there. It was coming from the screaming mouth sitting above horribly thin neck, open like a gaping wound and lined with rows and rows and rows of needle-sharp pointed teeth. I saw a monk move closer to the thing, clad in white like a sacrificial lamb. I turned around to run, just as I heard a wet “thunk”, a gurgle and the sound of frenzied, hungry gulping. I ran, and I kept running, and I’m still running.

He fell into silence, and I didn’t push him any further. I thought of rumours I had heard elsewhere, of cults and the brutal appeasement of wandering spirits, of the high price demons extract from the outliers of humanity. I had heard it said that some such things could be fed with offering of food, and some with corpses. These were more to be pitied than despised. Some things, however, could only be satiated by life. I had even looked into such things before, but to no avail. The truth was lost in the vague swirls of myth and religion. I thought to of delusions, tricks wrought on the mind by isolation and fear. I thought of murderers who went to their death screaming that it was some demon who done it. We sat in a brief silence, before after a while he asked if I thought he was mad. I assured him that I did not, and he nodded. Clearly uncomfortable with the sudden lack of noise, he rose and wished me goodnight. He finished his drink in a long, thirsty gulp and walked out of the more quickly. It struck me that there may have been some truth in the man’s story. Perhaps he had seen something horrible at that temple, and had simply shrouded it in a veil of mystery and occultism. I decided that I maybe have been talking to a witness, a fantasist, a madman or a murderer. To this day I am trying to work out which.

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