As the rain-streaked landscape of bustling Paris suburbs streamed past the rental carís windows, I pressed the accelerator down with even more force, anxious to get to my destination. After stifling hours on a cross-Atlantic flight and the dense throngs at the airport, followed by the insane traffic of downtown Paris and its urban sprawl, I was finally nearing the end of my journey. Beside me, on the blue cloth seat, a battered canvas knapsack held what remained of my worldly possessions.
There was a change of clothes, some toiletries, a dog-eared prayer book, and my prized possession - a grimy encyclopedia of herbs and plants. That small bundle was all I was bringing with me into my new life.
The carís GPS display was easy to follow in the dawn light, its large arrow pointing me to the next turn in the maze of streets. The distance-to-target numbers clicked off the miles with metronomic calm. With the contraptions of the year 2103 bright on my dashboard, and the throngs of cars and buildings around me, I was still able to imagine myself as one of the travelers of millennia past, nearing the destination of my pilgrimage.
This was a journey that few in my life had agreed with. My immediate family in particular had argued with me ceaselessly about my chosen path. They reminded me that I was only thirty, hardly an age to be entering a monastery in these pressing times. My skills in botany might help feed the hungry of the world, to find a solution to the near-insolvable problems of feeding so many. My father pointed out, repeatedly, that while there were indeed Carthusian nuns, the monastery I was interested in was solely comprised of men. How would they deal with a woman in their midst? Both of my parents also desperately wanted me to bear them grandchildren, despite the overabundance of humans already straining our planet to the limits.
I sighed thinking of those arguments. Having children was the last thing that I wanted. I needed to get away from it all, from the hectic newsflashes about starvation, from the press of humanity that bombarded me when I left my tiny apartment.
The GPS pointed left, and I waited at the red light, watching the heavy traffic around me. The pressing mass of civilization was lessening slightly now that I was nearing the protected zone around Vauvert. I knew that zoning laws did not apply within the monasteryís acreage. Then I saw the break ahead - a sharp demarcation across the landscape. One side had tight row houses and cars... the other was open meadow. It was startling to see, the fields, the openness. I neared the chain-link fence that marked the edge of the protected area and showed my ID to the guard who manned the gate. He looked it over and then waved me through. The packed houses faded abruptly, replaced with carpets of May poppies. My breathing deepened, and I rolled down the passenger window a crack to let in the fresh aromas of field and flower. The cares of the outer world began to seep away, the stresses in my shoulders to release and relax.
The miles rolled by, the quiet wrapping itself around me in a gentle embrace. Ahead, growing closer with every mile, was La Grande Chartreuse itself. It was early yet for tourists to be arriving, and again I thought of myself as a medieval traveler, perhaps on donkey-back, making this final stage of my journey. I was joining an order whose history traced back to 1084. With change an ever-present demon in the 2100s, this truly was a group whose way of life had remained practically the same for centuries upon centuries.
I pulled around to a side entrance, parking next to a set of worn stone steps. A brother walked slowly out from an archway to greet me, welcoming me in a low, melodious voice. I handed him the keys, and he took the rental around to the garage area. It was to be returned by one of the brothers in a few days, when they went in to town for supplies. My possessions now could be carried in one hand. I took a deep breath and entered the ancient halls, looking around me in wonder.
To me, many religious buildings have a sense of being a museum. St. Peterís Cathedral in Rome had always struck me in that way - somewhere to visit, to admire artwork, but not necessarily somewhere to find a personal connection with God. La Grande Chartreuse was different. You could see the worn impressions where thousands of feet over the years had trod the steps, going to their prayers. The wood benches were smooth from the bodies of countless monks and nuns. The structure had an encompassing feeling of comfort, and I felt as if I had finally come home. It seemed that I could slide into a bench and that it would receive me, that it would be shaped to fit me.
A voice broke through the ease of my thoughts, and I realized that an early tourist group was indeed in the building. I was irritated that they should disturb some of my first moments in my new home. Then, shaking myself slightly, I let the irritation pass over me and through me. This was a fact of life in the way I had chosen, and to be annoyed with it was senseless. I turned and listened with amusement as the party - elderly Americans, judging by their dress and quiet chatter - were lectured on the history of this building.
"The French nationalized the monastery in 1904," the young female guide explained in a cheerful voice. Her blonde ponytail bobbed as she led the group down the stone hallway. "The government was hoping to learn the secret of the famous drink Chartreuse, which only three monks held the key to. While the monks fled to Spain, the government brought in scientists, hoping to determine the secret recipe. With all of the technology at hand, and with the actual distillery in their possession, they were still unable to unravel the secrets of this drink. Eventually the monastery was returned to the monks, where they make the īElixir of Long Lifeī to this day."
One of the grey-haired men raised his hand and repeated back to the guide, "Elixir of Long Life? Does it work?"
Amidst quiet laughter, the guide shook her head in mock sadness. "Iím afraid not. The recipe was given to these monks in 1605, and apparently even at that point the manuscript was quite old. All we outsiders know is that it starts with seventy percent wine alcohol and adds in one hundred and thirty herbs and spices. The result is fresh, herbal, delicious, and is famous around the globe." She smiled, and the ponytail swished as she turned. "Come, let me show you the cellars - the largest liqueur cellars in the entire world."
The group moved off, and I noticed a sign on one wall, indicating the administrative offices were down a hallway to the left. I knew the layout of the church by heart - I had poured over it countless times as I awaited the results of the required background check and psychological profile. Very few applicants chose to isolate themselves with the Carthusian order in these modern times, and the monks wanted to make sure that any new "family members" would fit in smoothly with the existing brotherhood. I had passed the initial tests and had been invited out to the church to begin an orientation process. The monks would review my progress for the first few years to ensure that I was truly appropriate for this calling. Only then would I be accepted as a full member of the order.
I was surprised, walking along the stone corridor, to hear an angry murmur coming from the stout wooden door before me. The brothers could talk, certainly. This was not a silent monastery. Still, the order was famous for its quiet contemplation and gentle ways. What could this argument be about?
The voices grew more strident as I approached. An elderly manís voice cried out in exasperation, "But sheís a woman. Weíve never had to work with a woman. Itís simply not heard of."
A second, raspy voice chimed in. "Exactly. We refuse."
There was a long pause, and then a younger voice spoke up, speaking smoothly. "Honored Fathers, I understand your concerns. This is an order with a long and venerated history. Still, the Carthusian Nuns are a part of that history, and you must admit that women of that order have proved invaluable over the centuries."
Another pause. I was standing by the door now, and could hear him inhale before he continued. "You will not live forever, fathers, and we need a botanist to carry on the great work of creating Chartreuse. We need someone who can faithfully create what was given to us so many centuries ago. We simply do not have any male applicants who fit our needs. Leslie is exactly what we have been praying for during these past years. Her skills are world-renowned. You have seen reports of her work. She has come willingly to our order, of her own volition. We have no other option. What would you have me do?"
A stubborn silence followed, and I began to feel self-conscious standing outside the doorway. I took a deep breath and knocked on the wooden door. "Come in," said the younger voice.
I entered the windowless office, and smiled at the brother who stood behind a solid wood desk. He was around my age, dressed in the long brown habit typical of the order. To my right stood three older fathers, with their hoods drawn over their heads so I could not distinguish their features. The shortest of the three, a stooped grandfatherly figure, seared me with his eyes but said nothing. Each nodded to me solemnly as the brother greeted me.
Apparently the older monks had capitulated to the younger one, because there was no mention of the argument during our introductory discussion. The group greeted me warily but genially enough, several times praising my botanical training and commenting what a welcome addition I would be to the monastery. When we were done, the younger brother took me to my cell and my apprenticeship began.
The rhythm of the monastery absorbed me into its easy repetition. The days stretched into weeks, and then months. I truly loved my work, and enjoyed every moment in the greenhouse or fields. I spent hours in the library, researching the many herbs and spices which made up their liqueur. I adjusted the layout of the greenhouses so the herbs grew more healthily, and earned the grudging admiration even of the three elder fathers. During my work I learned that each father only knew a third of the all-important secret recipe, which helped ensure that no single monk could be captured and have the secret in enemy hands. It had been a requirement set by the first monks to receive the parchment, back when they felt it truly was a recipe for eternal life. The parchment, given to the order in 1605, had been ancient even when they received it. That original document had long since turned to dust, and only the memories of those three monks kept its secrets alive.
The outer world, with its overpopulation and growing hunger, faded from my life. I was living as these monks had lived for over one thousand years. Every morning that I awoke to the sun streaming through my cell window, and the birds singing sweetly outside, I gave thanks that I had found my haven. Summer rolled around into fall, and then winter. We lit roaring fires in the fireplaces, put on extra robes, and shared stories around the warmth. Time streamed on. Another year wheeled around, and then two. A ceremony on a fine day in April initiated me fully into the order, and the feast that evening had many toasts of Chartreuse to my long and happy life in the household. I felt complete.
The monks became my family, much loved, even with their quirks. The three fathers of the recipe held a special place of honor within our group. My favorite of the three fathers was Arthur, the eldest, a man who was quick to smile and who took pleasure in the smallest items of beauty. Nearing eighty, he was still as spry as a mountain goat and often helped me on foraging trips in the hills.
Spring was freshening our world again during my fifth year there when Arthur and I went into the hills in search of borage. He told me of his childhood in southern France, back when homes had large yards to play in, when space had not become so scarce. We talked for a while of new UN resolutions that each family could only have one child. The hope was that in a few hundred years, the population could be reduced to a level that was sustainable, that all could be fed and have homes. With illness all but wiped out, and the average life span a full one hundred twenty years, the UN had not found another solution to the population problem. To the monks this time would pass in the blink of an eye, and they were encouraged by the plan.
I realized suddenly that Arthur was no longer beside me - I had left him behind by accident in my musing. Heading back down the trail, I was alarmed to see Arthur sitting by the side of the trail, breathing heavily. I ran to him and knelt down beside him. "Iíll go back and get some help," I reassured him. "You just sit still."
Arthur held me back. "No, no. I feel myself fading," he said between deep breaths. "The recipe cannot be lost. I must tell you the herbs," he insisted.
I felt torn, but I also understood how important this was to him. I could always run for help once he was done. Obediently, I moved next to him, and listened intently. His breathing slowing, he smoothly recited the forty ingredients that he had been entrusted with, and the portion used of each. My years of studies served me well, and it only took a few repetitions before I had the sequence seared into my memory.
Arthur looked at me then, and concern showed on his face. "We were worried about you," he admitted to me, the first he had spoken of that early argument. "We were concerned about you being a female. It is very important this recipe stay exactly the way it is. We worried that a female might change it, might not understand. But I trust you." He looked into my eyes. "Remember the hyssop," he said seriously. "The recipe must not change."
I took his hand in mine. "I promise. I will leave the recipe as is," I whispered. He blinked once, and then he was gone.
The funeral was held on a dreary spring morning, with dignitaries coming from far and wide to pay their respects. The press made much about me being the first female to share in the secret of the recipe, despite it being an accident of chance. Many heralded my position as a sign that religious orders were accepting women as equals. I shut most of that out, and focused on my work at the monastery. Now that I was one of the three holders of the recipe, my assigned duties had changed. I had entrusted some of my assistants to the daily care and gathering of the herbs. I now had to oversee the final stage of each production, adding in the ingredients in the proper proportions.
Arthurís final words about hyssop often rolled around in my mind as I worked in the steamy fermentation room. There had been forty herbs on his list, herbs with origins around the world. Whoever created that original recipe, long before the fifteenth century, had traveled far and wide to find his sources. Who could he have been? And what was so special about hyssop?
The first year was busy, learning the new routines and processing. After a year, it became second nature to me, and my mind often wandered as I handled my secret tasks. The long, dog days of the following summer were especially mind dulling and I fought to find something to keep myself occupied. In my idleness I began to experiment with small batches of extra liqueur. I would try putting in extra hyssop, or leaving out hyssop totally. With the seventy percent alcohol and one hundred twenty nine other herbs, I found I couldnít taste any difference at all. I was certain that I could completely forget to use hyssop in a commercial run and nobody would notice at all. What was the big deal about hyssop?
I gave up on my experiments during the busy times of fall harvest. Still, the thoughts wiggled around in my subconscious. Fall faded into a snowy winter. Again the fires were lit, and I felt the soft sadness that Arthur was not there to share in our story telling. He had shared such interesting tales of the olden days, with such wit and humor that brothers would talk of them for days afterwards. I missed him quite a bit.
Late winter was always the hardest. Dawn became a struggle, to emerge from the cocoon of warmth of blankets to stumble to morning prayers. My eyes were barely half-open when the winter solstice dawned and I joined the congregation for our prayers. The stone hall was full of bleary eyes and tightly wrapped cloaks. One of the younger brothers was reading them a passage from Kings. The voice rolled out across the frosty dawn. "And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes."
I perked up. Hyssop? Hyssop springing out of walls? That didnít sound like hyssop at all. Despite the sluggish cold, the gears in my mind started turning... slowly at first, and then more quickly. When the sermon was done, I returned to my cell and picked up my own dog-eared copy of the Bible. I began looking through it for all references to hyssop. The more that I read, the more sure that I was that what they were calling hyssop was what we now knew as marjoram. The elixir was using the wrong ingredient!
I forced myself to remain calm, to think this through. No doubt this was yet another silly conjecture of mine. Still, the recipe used just about every common herb I knew of. For some reason, marjoram was not in the mix, at least as far as I knew. Iíd never seen it grown on the grounds, and I doubted that it was smuggled in secretly.
I volunteered to go into town on the weekly supply run and selected some marjoram at the local supermarket. I picked up a paper, as well, for the congregation to share. It told the usual tales of population crowding and UN resolutions. I held my herb satchel close to me as I left the store. It felt like a pouch of treasure to me, imbued with magic properties.
It was a week later when it was time for the next fermentation round. Excited, I brought down my secret stash and made a small batch for myself substituting marjoram for the hyssop.
The mixture seemed the same color, seemed to have the same aroma. I felt a bit let down. If I couldnít tell before when I added or removed hyssop, how could I possibly expect a big change when I put in marjoram instead? Still, I had half expected the mixture to turn a shocking blue, or for puffs of smoke to emerge from the new mixture.
I took a small sip, and I imagined that it did taste a bit more tingly, a bit fresher. It was hard to tell, though. Perhaps my overwrought imagination had taken control. I put the remaining mixture into a bottle, corked it, and decided to try tastes of it over the next few weeks to give it a fair test.
The next morningís taste gave me the same sensation - slight tingling, nothing further. I decided if nothing else it was a pleasant way to wake up, and made it a part of my daily routine.
The weeks passed, the routine settling in once more. Spring descended on our world, waking me with its fresh breath each morning. I was lying in bed admiring the sunrise when a knock awoke me from my morning dreams. I pulled a robe around me and stumbled blearily to the door. I found the two elderly fathers standing there, looks of concern on their faces. I invited them in, and they went immediately to the yellow bottle sitting on the windowsill. Before I could utter a word, they had pulled out the cork and each taken a small sip of my concoction. Their eyes turned on me in unison with a steady look.
"Your grey is gone," commented John, the younger of the two. His eyes went to the small mirror, which hung over my washbasin.
Confused, I walked over to look at myself. He was right! I had paid so little attention to my looks since coming here that I hadnít even noticed the gradual change. The grey, which had plagued me since my mid-twenties, was completely gone and my hair was a rich, lustrous black color.
John took one last sniff of the bottleís contents, then reached his hand out the window and poured the rest onto the ground. He re-corked the empty bottle and placed it again on the sill. "You must never change our recipe again, Leslie," he said quietly. "You were told the rules by Arthur. It is important for our recipe to stay the way it is."
A thousand thoughts whirled in my head. "But if itís true, if the recipe has been wrong this entire time, think what it could mean to humanity! Think what kind of reaction we would get if we announced we had really found a way to help people live longer!"
The two stood quietly, looking at me. "Yes," answered John. "Just think of what the world would be like."
I sat slowly on the bed. I thought of the massive crowding I had come here to escape, of the starvation in the world. Of the troubles caused by too many people on a too-small planet. I realized just how devastating it could be if the cycle of life was disturbed, if by extending life we allowed the planet to fill up with more and more people, until there was no more room.
Long minutes passed as my thoughts warred. We had a miracle here - but one that could bring on civil wars, battles over already scarce resources. The monastery itself would come under attack, the formula stolen by greedy military who wanted it only for themselves. Only the wealthy would benefit. Perhaps in the fray a brother would be slain and the secret would be lost forever.
My head bowed.
I took a deep breath, the thrill of discovery being replaced by an acceptance of what was to come. "You are right," I admitted finally. "The recipe must stay the way it has always been."
I looked up. Our eyes met in understanding, and the two nodded. They turned and left me alone.
The years unrolled in quiet circles of warm and cold, and it seemed not long at all before I was the eldest of the recipe keepers. All too quickly it seemed the monastery was full of younger monks, mere children, seeking the peace and quiet I had come to take for granted. I often had a young man or woman in my cell, asking for my advice or seeking my guidance. And always they commented on the profusion of beautiful roses, which grew around my window frame, displaying their velvety blooms in the warmest summers or the chilliest winters.