Sunday Stories: “Silent Retreat”


Silent Retreat
by Jo Beckett-King

During afternoon meditation, Bob sweats desperation. Later, his gaze lingers just a little too long on my tank top as we pair up for controlled breathing exercises. Maybe he pictured a moment like this when he booked his place and thought it could be the beginning of something. After all, if a person never speaks, you’re free to project onto him or her as much as you like. Across the room, Stefan has the poise of a true yogi. He looks as though he doesn’t concern himself with such trivial matters as physical attraction. His white linen pants are partially see-through. To my right is a woman called either Rachel or Raquel—a smudge on her name tag makes it hard to tell. Her corkscrew curls offset the sharp angles of her face. I wonder what her reason for being here is. Bad break-up is my guess. I think about the symbols we carry with us, how poor posture reveals low self-esteem, how a tongue piercing signals sexual adventurousness. The name tags almost seem superfluous really, considering we only need to refer to one another before mealtimes, when we pass notes to summon any missing people. Even then, a quick mime of a knife and fork in motion and some skillful pointing would probably do the trick.

My editor said that I had to make my account compelling, but I’m not sure what kind of action she was expecting. It is difficult to find drama in silence. I spend the first few hundred words of my draft outlining the day-to-day itinerary. The rules here are simple: no talking, no cell phones, no laptops. Communication with one another must be kept to a minimum. I can see the appeal, of course, to hipsters/yuppies/new-age types/burnt-out techno geeks seeking salvation. According to the notes I made on the way here, the website offers: “A retreat from modern life, a chance to reassess and return to the essence of existence.”

By day 3, I remember how long days were as a child, and worry about how short they will seem when I am eighty or ninety. Here at the retreat, time is slow again. Outside, I stare at the grass and hope if I stare long enough I will see it grow.

Thankfully, there is scenery. Cornwall, with its jagged cliffs and deep blue waters, looks like no other part of England I have seen. On today’s walk, I wonder under what circumstances someone in the group would break the vow of silence. What if Stefan were to accidentally trip and fall off the edge of a cliff? His blissful expression tells me he would not even scream. During his wordless descent, he would accept his fate. And the rest of the group, what would they do? I hope that I would shout to get help. But at this moment it seems unfathomable. I worry if the silence itself is exacting some kind of power over us.

By day 5, I am contemplating whether the rest of the group has formed a murderous plot against me. I am sure that I have seen sly glances exchanged between several members and the leader, Dharmadhara. At night, vague memories of a news report about a fetishistic cannibal from Germany—or was it Austria? I wish I could google it—keep me from sleeping. A man advertised on Craigslist or the equivalent for someone he could sacrifice. Bizarrely, he found a willing participant. One detail of the story remains vivid: It was said that he cooked the victim’s penis in a frying pan and ate it for breakfast. It is a mental image that sticks. I look around my dorm and consider the possibility that the rest of the group assembled online beforehand with some kind of agenda. Even in silence, their unity is obvious.

By day 7, I begin to fantasize about the sensation of screaming. I want to break away from the group on the next walk and yell into the wind.

I wake up in the night to the sound of muffled crying. I look over to the bed beside me and see Ra(ch/qu)el’s head against her pillow with her comforter bunched up around her. I reach down into my suitcase for my notebook, tear out a page and write:


I pass it to her, along with a tissue. She takes them both and smiles, still sniffing, and gives a slight nod of the head. She tucks the note into her pajama pocket. I think I was right about the break-up. I lie back and hope that my good deed will save me if the rest decide to turn.

By day 9, relations within the group are fractious. I think there was a misunderstanding about whose turn it was to do the dishes. Whatever unity there might have been is now lost. I wake up early, and continue working on my article. At no point do I mention the fears I had for my safety. I do not want my boss to doubt any part of my “physically and mentally robust” status. (HR insisted on an assessment before green-lighting the trip.) Instead, I follow a familiar formula. I begin by giving my first impressions and weave my notes into a narrative that compares this experience to those of other celeb trends we’ve covered recently: Shaman-led ayahuasca trips in the Peruvian jungle, shark diving in Mexico, and so on. The reason I am even here is that the sister of Kate Middleton—so, the sister of Prince William’s wife—was photographed outside the center, apparently picking up a friend of hers. Despite the tenuousness of the link, the copy editor of the original article opted for the headline “Her Royal Silence.” In my piece, I explain that my initial reaction was to call it a fad, but in the end, I conclude that it is the intensity of our day-to-day lives that leads people to such extreme forms of escape, and who is to deny us that?

On day 10, we have a parting ceremony. We stand in a circle and Bob comes over to me with his arms open. I allow myself to be hugged but do not yield to it. The others begin to congregate. There is chanting. I give Ra(ch/qu)el a single wave and make my way to the cab waiting for me at the entrance.

As I close the cab door, I hear Britney Spears’s “Toxic” on the radio. I am overwhelmed and scrawl, “21st-century masterpiece,” in my notebook. The driver asks me where I’m from and it takes me a second to think and another to answer. Twice during the journey he asks me to repeat myself before I catch on and raise my voice, though I have little to say.

Copy sent, I pop a Lunesta on the airplane, and while I wait for it to take hold, I look out of the cabin window and stare straight ahead, hoping to see the first sign of light.

Originally from the UK, Jo Beckett-King is a French-to-English translator living in Brooklyn. She edits Oblong, an online publication for flash fiction, and her stories have appeared in Word Riot, 4’33”, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. 

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