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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

The Tattered Knot - A Story


At the start of that virulent year, when an unintentional happiness came more easily, my father gave me some advice. “Don’t worry about anything,” he said as he worked in the garden, “always remember that life is a flash”. I did not know what he meant.

That was the day when I went to work in a monastery on the south coast where I was given a battered old beach hut to live in. Immediately, it felt like home. On the other side of my new abode, a shining paragon of steel-clad architecture dwarfed everything, reducing my little house into murky oblivion. With the crumbling walls of the monastery on one side and the perfect walls of the super-rich on the other, the wilderness that clung to my new lodging shone brightly in the unpretentious plot. At first sight, I couldn’t help entertaining the selfish notion that neighbourly neglect might not be such a bad thing.

In the mornings, I worked in the monastery garden trimming everything in sight according to the exacting standards expected by monastic tradition. In that secluded world, nature was beautiful, but best appreciated when mercifully tamed. The monks, like bumble bees grazing rosemary, moved through the day according to a timeless pattern. At the end of my working day, without fail, the abbot Fr. John approached me and simply nodded. Occasionally, he might ask a question or say a few words, but his nod defined him more than anything else and suggested, at least to me, that everything was as it should be.

One day, I noticed an ancient looking man frowning down at me from an open window on the second floor. I waved self-consciously, worrying that the poor soul might be demented.

A few moments after he’d retreated into his room, a piece of paper floated aimlessly upon the breeze. Snatching it from its unhurried descent, I saw that it was a prayer for gardeners. On the back, written in a fragile scrawl were the words, ‘I love the garden. I am praying for your work’. It was unsigned but I saw that the demented frown that I’d seen in the old man’s face was more likely the bright glow of human kindness.

In the afternoons, I got to know my other neighbour. The first time I met Jack, he was everything I thought my wealthy neighbour would be. Brash. It turned out that he was the nephew of the owner. After his girlfriend had ditched him, he’d bolted to his uncle’s summer home. She’d moved to far-off China. “Imagine that,” he pronounced sorrowfully over a few beers in the local pub. I had little difficulty imagining it, but I thought it better to take a vow of silence on the matter.

The following week, I received another note from above. There was no prayer this time. It simply read, ’St. Fiacre was a gardener and a healer, with thanks, Br. Anthony’. Stuffing the note in my pocket just in time to receive the nod from Fr. John, I hurried off to find Jack.

Most days, we went swimming. Jack was a sports instructor and he was hellbent on improving my forward crawl, my back stroke and my overall fitness. He had his work cut out for him though I followed along happily enough. Despite his bravado, he was good company.

One day that Spring, the country eerily retreated into itself, desperately collapsing like a butterfly back into its pupa. A strange virus from the East had struck our nation putting everything into lockdown. I’m not sure what it says about me, but my life didn’t change all that much. I still worked in the mornings, happily failed to improve my swimming in the afternoons and hung out at home till bedtime.

Most evenings, I tidied up my back garden careful to preserve its wild spirit. Jack donated outdoor furniture from his uncle’s store of castoffs. From that point on, Jack came over every evening to help around the garden. Sometimes with food, mostly with booze and always with a grin. We told stories and we laughed, making the best of the new freedom granted by our imposed isolation. Jack talked a lot about travel and adventure. I talked a lot about nature. Somewhere in between, we found our common language. There wasn’t much else we could do.

On a Summer morning, I found another note floating amongst the flower beds. This one quoted a saint, ‘Do not wish to be anything but what you are and try to be that perfectly’. I looked up but could see no sign of my reclusive mentor. When I showed Jack, he pinned it reverently to the door of my house with an attentive ceremony. When I laughed at him, he replied with more belief than I would have given him credit for, “All wisdom is good”.

The next day, feeling too lazy for a swimming lesson, I watched Jack swim out to sea with the wild grace of a salmon. After a long time, he returned and collapsed on the warm sand. Seeing my quizzical look, he shouted cheerily, “I know what I am”. “Eejit”, I replied with a thoughtless chuckle never realising that his peculiar words would stay with me.

In early Autumn, I climbed the tall beech tree in the monastery grounds to take care of a badly broken branch. Luckily, Jack came along to help. As I edged out onto an upper branch, I heard the wind groan loudly through the splintered wood. Feeling disorientated, I slipped and barely managed to cling on with my legs. Frantically, I tried to find the rope that was meant to hold me. As I desperately struggled to steady myself, I fell.

Impossibly, Jack caught me. Somehow, he’d scrambled into position below me, reached out, grabbed me and swung me to the ground, softening my fall.

When I stood upright, he grinned broadly. Shocked to my core, I tried to thank him, but he just shrugged it off. Instead, he picked up the rope that had secured me to the tree. “See, the knot is tattered,” he said.

I didn’t know what to say. I should have thanked him properly. I regret that now.

The next day, a half-expected note dropped nimbly onto the path where I was working. It read, ‘Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again: for forgiveness has risen from the grave - With thanksgiving, Br. Anthony’. I can’t explain it, but I had the odd impression that this message was his final blessing. That afternoon, I was not surprised to see Fr. John calmly beckoning me to the door. He told me that Br. Anthony had taken a sudden turn for the worse. He also asked me to read aloud from the Bible at 7 pm in the garden as Br. Anthony would appreciate it. I couldn’t refuse so I nodded my agreement, content to abandon the fledgling words of consolation that had evaded me.

At the appointed time, I entered the monastery grounds and saw a single wooden chair. Alongside, a leather-bound Bible waited for me upon an upturned apple crate. Glancing up, I saw that Br. Anthony’s window was wide open. I sat and read loudly from Genesis, feeling absurdly small as my voice boomed into the growing shadows of that pristine garden. The sound of window latches and creaking hinges accompanied my delivery, a rickety chime that matched the jolting wonderment that I felt.

I repeated this ritual for the remaining week. After the sixth reading, my little garden could no longer contain us so Jack and myself brought our beers onto the dunes. We chewed over Anthony’s notes and talked about life and death. In the fading light, the back and forth of our words retraced enduring patterns of human experience. As Jack stood up to return home, he left me with words to puzzle over, “Not everything can be neatly unravelled,” he said.

The next morning, Fr. John told me that dear old Anthony had passed away peacefully in his sleep with the words of God echoing in his ears. But before he could give me his usual nod, the tranquil scene was shattered by the deafening bleat of sirens from the seashore. I immediately ran towards the noise. Amidst the chaotic bustle, a lone garda told me that a ferry had sunk just outside the harbour. As I stood by, not knowing what to do with myself, I looked for Jack amongst the confused ebb and flow of onlookers.

All that day, I heard sorry tales of a young man who had swum out to the sinking ferry. Again, and again, he’d returned to shore with rescued souls. From the arrival of the emergency services till nightfall, it was feared that the brave young hero had been lost to the sea. I repeatedly called to Jack’s house but did not find him. That night, I sat awake with a stinging absence for company. Nothing was certain. There are times when that’s all we know. It’s not enough but we make do. We have to.

Early the next morning, Fr. John met me at the harbour. He didn’t say anything but rested his right hand firmly upon my shoulder, his strong grip a merciful anchor. I tried to look out to where the sea birds flew but I could not avoid his appalling news. In the swelling light of dawn, Jack’s body had been found and Fr. John had helped local fishermen carry his lifeless remains to an ambulance. I stopped listening, his remaining words disappeared into the heavy drumming of my heart, drowning out everything except the whimpering sea and the anxious screech of the gulls.

It was a sort of shared funeral, for Jack and Br. Anthony, with few mourners allowed to congregate because of the awful virus. A line of people dotted the roadway, but their bowed heads couldn’t wash away the gnawing soreness of loss. If nothing else, the pandemic had brought us all closer together. It was bound to hurt one way or the other.

A month later, I stood again with Fr. John before the graves. The abbot nodded to me and I read from Matthew, sadly uttering the final words, ‘Sleep on now, and take your rest’. After the reading, I was keenly aware that the wind had whipped the hallowed words along the rocky shoreline. It was called Forlorn Point, a desolate place that I will never forget.

That evening, for the first time in a long while, I talked with my father. With loss as my companion, I listened to his words with an aching depth that felt older than anything I’d known before.

In my dream that night, I saw my soul grow and fray like a tattered knot in which three golden threads wove their mystery; the deep well of memory, the rough journey of experience and the irrepressible flow of emotion. Just over the horizon, the three golden threads led back to the sacred moment that ignited the universe itself, the great flash of existence at the beginning of all things.

Time cannot heal, nor can space. It’s what happens beyond time and space that makes all the difference. That great and terrible year, I learned something that I’d never dreamt of knowing. To live well is to come to know the deepest part of you, to find the inner self that never changes, to hold onto the golden threads that anchor your soul. It is there that we find the strength to endure the painful enchantment of this fragile world.

Often, my mind and heart turns to our almighty Father who made heaven and earth, the Son of God who dwelled on earth for our salvation and the Holy Spirit who gives life for it constantly amazes me how God calls to us through every facet of our being.

To this day, I end my night prayer with a final invocation of hope in faithful memory of my friend Jack’s joyful cry, ‘This is what I am’.


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