The monastery at the top of the hill had stood for centuries; its mossy walls and crenelated parapets bore the fine dimpling that comes to sandstone at a very old age, after it has weathered the sun and wind and rain of countless seasons past. Inside the single cloister was a massive apple tree, planted by a friar on the day of the monastery’s completion in 1631. Its broad-leafed crown towered over the parapets; its thick, gnarled limbs kept the cloister in shade. Every two years the tree bore hundreds of firm-fleshed, cannonball-sized fruit, precious fruit that sustained the four monks tasked with stewardship of the monastery. These apples they would pick at the peak of ripeness in the fall, storing them in the cool, dry cellars to last until the next harvest.
Brother Ben tended to the tree, as well as all the other plants found around the monastery. He was the horticulturist, the groundskeeper, and he relished the quiet contemplation afforded to him by wandering the various gardens, plucking weeds and pruning branches. The solitary, peripatetic nature of his work allowed him to smoke the occasional cigarette unnoticed, forbidden as they were, and he was careful to mask their telltale odor with manly perfumes. Equally illicit was the plot of cannabis plants he nurtured along the west-facing wall, but they were grown so close to the hops that no one seemed aware of their existence.
Above the west-facing wall, in a spartan room of bare walls and dusty stone floors, Brother Andrew sat at a wooden bench and tapped furiously at the keyboard to his desktop. His cowl was pulled up over his head, his cloak drawn across his shoulders; he shivered despite the balmy humidity. He was designing a brilliant searchable database for nunneries worldwide—called “EveryNun”—and he was behind in his work. The nuns would be by that day. Normally he looked forward to the nuns’ arrival, once a week, to deliver alms; it was his wont to flirt shamelessly with them. But when his work was wanting (as it was at the moment), he dreaded the sight of their super-starched habits weaving up the cobbled path, cursed their beetled brows and pursed lips and sanctimonious sniffling.
Across the hall from him sat Brother Frank, the Renaissance monk. Whether studying obscure yogic disciplines or dabbling in spirited alchemy, hurling the discus with aplomb or micro-managing tiny pixelated characters on a screen, Brother Frank possessed the Midas touch: nothing was beyond his golden reach. The day before, he had run down a quarterhorse—barefoot—after twenty miles, just to show it could be done. His calves were sore. On his smartphone he brought up a local pop station, and as he stretched his legs the saccharine bars of Carly Rae Jepsen pulsed from his noise-cancelling earbuds.
In the room adjacent, Brother Pete hunched over a moldering tome, scribbling with a quill. His hair was wild and his eyes puffy and bloodshot. He was the monastery scribe, recorder of all things natural and historical. When he wasn’t spending days at a time holed up in his quarters writing, he could be spotted out on the parapet, craning his neck to stare at birds; or chasing insects across the grounds with a cheesecloth net; or wading knee-deep in the nearby swamp, attracting leeches. His was a life of patient discovery, of simple truths evinced by everyday observation.
That afternoon the nuns came by with their alms. Because Brother Ben was surreptitiously smoking a cigarette behind the hydrangeas, Brother Andrew was feigning sleep, and Brother Frank couldn’t hear for his super-efficient earbuds, Brother Pete had answered their timid knocking at the door. It was Sister Constance, holding a large basket covered in cloth.
“Oh! Good afternoon, Brother Pete.” She seemed shocked at his appearance. “We’ve come to bring you the alms, of course.” She held out the basket. Two nuns stood silently behind her, watching him.
“Of course,” he said, taking the basket. “And good afternoon to you, Sister. Thank you.” He lingered awkwardly at the door. In the corner of his eye he saw Brother Andrew creeping down the stairs behind him. “Tell them I’m not here,” he mouthed to Brother Pete, waving his hands. Brother Pete cleared his throat. “Well…”
“Now, excuse me for asking, but is Brother Andrew available? I wish to speak with him about the bit of work we’ve arranged to have done.” The other nuns nodded distractedly. Brother Pete made a face and had opened his mouth to respond, but she reconsidered. “Oh, nevermind. I’m sure he’s just putting the finishing touches on it now.” She tried to look past Brother Pete into the anteroom. “Yes, well…We’ll hopefully catch him next time. Good day, Brother Pete.” The three nuns turned to walk back down the hill. “Good day, sisters! And thank you, again!”
Sister Constance stopped and turned back to the door. “Brother Pete! One thing, I’m sorry. I had completely forgotten: Abbess Anne said you might be interested in the…the celestial event this evening. I haven’t the foggiest clue of the name of it, or what it is, really, but she wanted me to remind you, in case you weren’t already aware. So there it is. Anyway, good day.” She waved and they were off.
Brother Pete closed the door and racked his brain. A celestial event? What could it be? There were no comets or meteor showers he could think of. He was halfway up the stairs when it came to him: the syzygy! Earth would come into perfect alignment with the Moon, Mars, and Venus that evening, sometime before sunset. He raced off to his chambers to prepare a hasty manuscript.
As the brothers sat at their dinner of turnip soup and braised collards with black bread, Brother Pete brought up the syzygy and explained its significance. “We must go see it!” he implored. “It will not happen again in our lifetimes, I assure you.”
Brother Andrew, ever the skeptic, said, “What will we be able to see? If all the planets are converging in a path with ours, won’t it simply appear as an especially bright spot in the sky?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“And where do you propose we watch it from? Atop the parapet, like you so ill-advisedly do to follow birds? It has been raining, and the mossy walls are slick.”
“That is why I propose we climb the tree. It will take us even higher than the parapet, and the leaves will have sheltered the branches from rain. The higher the vantage, the better.”
Brother Ben said, “If we climb the tree, we must be careful of the blossoms. If we snap those off, there will be fewer apples come the fall.”
“My calves are sore,” said Brother Frank. “I don’t think I…”
“But of course,” interjected Brother Pete. “We will be careful of the blossoms. And Brother Frank, we will assist you if need be. I will assist you, that is. Come! Leave the plates. The time is nigh!”
The four brothers gathered at the base of the tree. A low-hanging branch served as the starting point, and they each jumped to grasp it. “Help a brother out,” said Brother Frank, and the others reached for his outstretched hand. By turns they shimmied up the trunk, gripping limbs and shaking raindrops and flower petals down on the cloister. Near the crown they settled into crotches and forks of the tree, waiting in the fading twilight. Rising up from the valley were shimmering waves of heat, blurring the horizon. It was muggy and still. Across the plains thunder rumbled ominously, heralding the storm.