A Short Story
By Alex Trachsell
“…and so any rational, self-aware creature ought to reject reason! Now let me through!” I croaked and stumbled towards the door. “Invalid argument,” the automated voice responded, and in an instant the machine whirled to action, sending a padded bar in my direction. With a spongy thud, wide-eyed me was hit in the head and knocked to the stone floor, seeing stars not for the first time that day.
This was the day that I escaped the abbey and trust me, “escape” is exactly the right word. You see, this abbey wasn’t home to Fransiscans or Dominicans, but was instead home to Sophians, and, although I’m happy to have counted myself among these peculiar monks and nuns, their abbey was a dangerous place.
It was no secret that the abbey had long been useless to the nearby city-dwellers, who claimed that the Sophians’ guidance wasn’t helpful or simply wasn’t worth the steep trek up the mountain (and a net loss is seen as quite the danger by these folk).
Amazingly, I only noticed the abbey’s perils on the evening I was invited to pray in its Stargazing Sanctum, a secluded room reserved for the monks and nuns deemed most worthy. Two of my closer friends, Aatun and Ramis, had told me that the abbey’s master was impressed by my curiosity and that I should meet them by the foyer, with some pens and a stack of paper. Of course, I obliged. As I contemplated whether it was a good idea to keep ballpoint pens in my pant pockets, Ramis and Aatun exited a tunnel next to the foyer. “This way, John,” Ramis beckoned and we hiked up the tunnel until we came to a set of ordinary doors. Aatun unlocked and pushed open. As I entered, I noticed first that the abbey’s usual stuffiness was absent and, looking up, I found the cause. With no roof above, a warm spring breeze was permitted to freshen the room, while the starlight cut through the current to illuminate the bodies below. At that point, I noticed the bodies.
Lying in the centre of the perfectly square room were entranced bodies looking up at the sky, stacks of paper to the left of their heads and pens to their right. I only knew they weren’t dead because it was clear where the deceased resided—in the corners of the room there were stacked sarcophagi, with inscribed names including Socrates, Nietzsche, and Liantinis. The harmonious order of the room was evident: one starts in the centre and moves toward the edges over time, just like the cosmos above.
In one calm and calculated movement, one of the Sophians grabbed a pen and paper, scribbled something down, folded the paper into an aeroplane and tossed it up through the roofless ceiling above. This was a type of Sophian prayer. They were praying in there. I counted eight bodies in total, lying three by three with a missing ninth in the back-right. The training of the Sophian monk exalts progress, order, ideals, so it was clear what was required of me. I assumed my place and looked up.
I began the Sophian rituals and mantras I had memorised during my time at the abbey. I prayed that the universe’s complex harmony would emerge out of its seeming cacophony as rain came down sideways overhead. I prayed that the universe would reveal its hidden order, as falling stars sporadically jumped across the sky. Unfortunately, my prayers were answered.
Peering into that abyss far above me, the small and insignificant place I, we, occupy in the universe was revealed to me. It’s a cruelly ordered universe to be faithful to, yet if you’ve ever been stargazing, you know that it’s hard to look away. Frozen into a staring contest with the stars, I had nothing to do but pray. But when I prayed, I prayed for significance, nevertheless aware that nothing short of the stars arranging themselves into my likeness would satisfy my ego; nevertheless aware that the enormity of space above me would emphatically decline my request for significance. Undoubtedly, my mind had strayed from the sacred Sophian virtues: knowledge, calm, harmony, and rationality. Undoubtedly, it was irrational for me to stay. What could that mean?
I began to think, “So if it is rational to follow the Sophian ways and gaze at the heavens (one’s eyes do see more looking up at the sky than at oneself, after all), and it is irrational to stay given what I’ve learned from the Sophian ways, then…”
A flake of snow landed on my cheek and I realised that I didn’t have time for deliberation. I realised that I was shivering and starving. I realised that it was spring when I began my prayers.
In an instant I was flush with adrenaline, as if I were still an acolyte and I just learned that today is the day of my seminary exam. Without thinking I attempted to stand up, but collapsed under my own weight. Now I was an acolyte who learned that the exam has already finished and there’s nothing I can do. I slumped forward, a few centimetres closer to the door than when I started—that’s all I could do. I repeated this until I made it to the door.
I swung the door open, ready to cry out for help, but the stuffiness of the stone corridor caught in my throat and my words were absorbed by the dusty air (anyway, Sophians are studious folk and wouldn’t have taken kindly to loud noises interrupting their work). I knew that I needed water to speak, and since snow was falling into the Sanctum’s modest opening, there might be a larger buildup of snow outside.
I began lumbering down the tunnel, the strength in my limbs slowly returning. When I reached the end of the passage, I found myself next to the foyer, and as I looked down the narrow room, I saw Aatun and Ramis through the window, my friends who led me to the Sanctum. Having forsaken rationality and calm in that room, I let myself be motivated by the desire to confront them.
All I had to do was pass the Gatekeeper, a fairly cutting-edge machine designed to prevent sophists (pseudo-Sophians intent on secretly pushing their own agendas and asserting their own egos) from entering the abbey.
The Gatekeeper operates on a simple principle: anyone who approaches must input their Sophian Entrance Thesis (either verbally or electronically) and if it is deemed sound or a certain kind of valid, then the Gatekeeper triumphantly announces “Passage permitted.” There was no way of avoiding the Gatekeeper, as it stood at the abbey’s only entrance and, well, there was no exit because no one had ever left before.
Of course, I did not have my Sophian Entrance Thesis on hand or memorised, but I knew I had found something in the Stargazing Sanctum. “I entered knowing that it was rational to follow the Sophian ways, to examine as much objective reality as one can by gazing into the heavens. To discover order in the chaos is the Sophian way. However, following the Sophian way into the Stargazer Sanctum taught me that knowledge and order do not make myself significant—that no reasoning is capable of that. Thus… Ah!” My mind was dragged back to my need for water and food. Desperate, I croaked out “…and so any rational, self-aware creature ought to reject reason! Now let me through!” and, as you know, I was quickly delivered a stony bed and tucked in aggressively by one of the Gatekeeper’s arms. From my angle on the ground I again saw silhouettes of Aatun and Ramis.
I tried again, restating the same premises, adding a few more, and culminating in “I want to feel significant. Therefore, I should leave!”
I’ve never heard the Gatekeeper at a loss for words, but it may have had to do with how openly ad hoc and self-centred my argument was (I don’t think anyone even masquerading as a Sophian would have tried that). It was not as objective as the stars, not as ideal as space, nor did it reflect the order and calmness of the Sanctuary from which these sights are taken in. Regardless, I didn’t waste the chance and snuck under the Gatekeeper as quickly as I could.
Staggering out of the front doors I collapsed in the mountain’s light covering of snow, drinking for the first time in too long. My voice came back to me and, as it did, words of blame came to my tongue. I looked around and Aatun and Ramis were nowhere to be seen. No one leaves the abbey after all, at least until now. I fell to my knees, exhausted.
I looked up and chuckled to myself. It was a dazzlingly starry night.
“Oh bright star, if only I were as steadfast as you are,” I said to my favourite one, putting my hands on my thighs to the sound of crinkling paper in one of my pockets. I checked my other pocket and took out one of the ballpoints I stuffed in there on that spring evening. Of course, it had soaked my pocket with ink, but it still had some to give.
“Well, here’s a start, I guess. Here’s a declaration of my faith to myself; a prayer to myself. I hope it saves me.” I wrote this down, folded it into an aeroplane and sent it down the mountain.