Authors: James Morrison
James Morrison is the author of a memoir,
, and a novel,
The Lost Girl
, among other books. His collection of short stories,
Said and Done
, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and winner of a
Book of the Year award. James Morrison teaches at Claremont McKenna College.
First published by GemmaMedia in 2011.
230 Commercial Street
Boston, MA 02109 USA
Â© 2011 by James Morrison
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles of reviews.
Printed in the United States of America
15Â Â Â 14Â Â Â 13Â Â Â 12Â Â Â 11Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1Â Â Â 2Â Â Â 3Â Â Â 4Â Â Â 5
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Morrison, James, 1960â
Everyday ghosts : a fable / James Morrison.
p. cm. âÂ Â Â Â (Gemma open door)
ISBN 978-1-934848-82-1 (pbk.)
1.Â Â Â MonksâFiction. 2.Â Â Â Self-realizationâFiction. 3.Â Â Â Psychological fiction.Â Â Â I. Title.
Cover by Night & Day Design
Inspired by the Irish series of books designed for adult literacy, Gemma Open Door Foundation provides fresh stories, new ideas, and essential resources for young people and adults as they embrace the power of reading and the written word.
North American Series Editor
For Joseph Marchione
Pete heard it before he saw it, the quick whoosh of the stick through the air, and the thwack-thwack-thwack as it hit Neb's backside. In the clearing, Louis raised the stick over his head to strike again, but Pete was too fast and snatched it away. Louis stood with his mouth gaping and his arm stretched out. Pete wanted to give his open palm a clean smack, but he snapped the stick in two and dropped it to the ground. Neb let out a snuffle and dug a hoof into the dirt, kicking up dust.
“If I ever catch you doing that again,” Pete began, but he knew as soon as he said them that his words were not well
chosen, so he stopped. He took Neb's rope and led her up the hill.
“Brother Louis told me what happened,” said Father Gabriel when he called Pete in the next morning. “I know there are two sides to every story.”
There were more than that, but when Pete spoke to Father Gabriel, their talks did split in two, what Pete answered and what was left unspoken. “He beat Neb again,” said Pete.
“The mule was not hauling,” said Father Gabriel. “Brother Louis nudged it to encourage its cooperation.”
“Neb's a donkey,” said Pete. “He beat her with a stick.”
Father Gabriel put his hands together, touching at the fingertips, and took
a breath. “Let man have power over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle. That is Genesis. You may have come across it in your reading. Notice that the cattle are singled out for special mention.”
Pete gazed at the floor. He had washed it three days ago but it was dirty. Neb was not cattle.
“Brother Peter, you are a good worker,” Father Gabriel went on. “Maybe you have a calling. Maybe not. Brother Louis has taken vows. You have taken none. You will need to choose. We all have our choices. You have been with us for two years now. You must remember that simply in being here, you have taken a vow of obedience. Our lives here are a great mystery. We all add up to something
and nobody knows what it is, but it is greater than any one of us by ourselves.” He yawned. His nose looked like a strawberry. It was bright red with pores like seeds. “Nobody knows where the journey ends,” he mumbled. He ordered Pete to do three Hail Marys. He rubbed his hands together and then he waved Pete away.
Were you called here? That was the question Pete asked himself when he was alone in his cell. Through his window was a view of the valley. Every day it was drenched in sunlight. The open sky spread out above. At night it filled with stars. To see the world's beauty all he had to do was look. If he leaned out, he could glimpse the roof of the barn
where Neb was, and the gate beyond. But the window was not his, nothing belonged to him. That was as it should be. Other valleys lay in shadow.
For a long time Father Gabriel's drinking had given his sermons a lighthearted air. He read from the Book of Psalms or the Song of Songs and giggled and blushed from time to time. Every so often came a dry day, when his manner turned gruff and he took to Leviticus. He seemed to find it calming. So much of that book was plain common sense. Who needed to be told to wash the blood out of clothes, or that something became unclean if a dead body fell on it? What sort of creature would desire most of what was forbidden anyway? Only one line warned against strong wine. True, that was on pain of death, but there were whole pages against eating animal
fat. Besides, drink was only frowned on in the meeting tent, the book said. So the path to virtue seemed easy to tread. Keep your things clear of falling corpses and stay out of tents. With such logic, it was no time at all before Father Gabriel's good humor was restored.
But things were changing. The bad days came more often. Even after a nip or two, Father Gabriel's mood was still dark. It was hard to tell the difference between when he was talking about heaven and when he was talking about hell. His sermons grew less considered. He seemed to be making them up as he went along. He would start by saying, “What prittle-prattle should we go on about today?” Even though he did not seem interested in what he was saying himself,
he demanded full attention. In better days he had overlooked fidgeting. Now the slightest twitch among his listeners stopped him cold, and he would glare at the offender until all motion ceased. As a result, services went on twice as long as before. This in turn doubled the chance of sneezes or yawns, which sent Father Gabriel into a rage, which meant even more time. It was a vicious circle.
Brother Walter took the brunt of it. He was nervous and restless by nature. Even in the best of times he had trouble sitting still for long. To make matters worse, he had hay fever in every season and a terrible fear and hatred of ants. He understood that he was supposed to love all creation, and he thought he managed this as well as possible. But he
could not pretend to love the ants. He loathed them. They seemed drawn to him, though. They were always crawling all over him at the most awkward moments. The minute he felt the telltale prickle on his skin he flew into a fit. He couldn't help it. He'd leap and moan and flap his arms, his robe flying, and he'd run up and down the halls screaming, or roll on the floor rubbing at himself until he was sure the ants were gone. Afterward, there were never any traces of them, and some ofWalter's less generous brothers had been heard to doubt that they were ever there in the first place. But since these fits happened many times a week, everyone had gotten used to them. Whether during meals or in prayer or at work, Brother Walter might jump up
and go into one of his mad jigs, or hurl himself to the floor and wriggle about, or go tearing past in a frenzy at any minute, and nobody would bat an eye.
Father Gabriel too had taken all this in stride in the past, but no more. Now Brother Walter sat in fear near the entry-way at the back of the church, his head bowed. This was a suitable posture for the occasion, and he hoped everyone thought he was praying. What he was really doing was scanning the ground around him for ants. He thought if he saw them coming he could squish them underfoot, without moving too much, before they started crawling up his leg. So far it was working. He had not detected any ants, but neither had he jumped up screaming during mass, not for days.
This was a relief because the last time, Father Gabriel had become so furious that he had taken several names in vain and pounded on the altar so hard that a chalice fell off.
There was still the matter of Brother Walter's hay fever. To keep from sneezing, he held his breath most of the time Father Gabriel spoke. By the end he felt very light in the head, but he found he could get through it. It must have added up, though. Day by day, the dizzy feeling got worse, until one morning, as soon as the sermon began, Brother Walter saw swarms of little stars flickering in front of his eyes. Before he could take a breath, he was out cold. He slumped from his pew. Everyone turned to look. At the front of the church, Father Gabriel stopped
in his tracks, anger bursting in his face. They all waited for the fit to start, but Brother Walter just lay there in the entry where he had fallen, stretched out across the floor, still as any stone. Father Gabriel cleared his throat. “Brother Walter,” he said, “this is a definite improvement. However, it is still a disruption. Therefore, I find fault in you. Ten Hail Marys.”
They met to discuss what was happening and what they should do about it. Deciding on courses of action was not their strong suit as a group. They talked for months about what two kinds of juice to keep in the pantry and could not come to an agreement. One of them thought orange juice had too much acid and was bad for the stomach. Another pointed out the benefits of cranberry. Most could not be satisfied, and the debate went on until Brother Frederic spoke up. He took it as his job to remind them of where and who they were. “A little luxury is a dangerous thing,” he said. “Poverty is best for the soul.” A hush fell. If Pete had not known better,
he might have supposed it was a humble silence, accepting of this scolding. But he did know better, and the next week there were thirteen kinds of juice to choose from.
Pete was only invited to meetings about matters of general interest. He was not allowed to vote. Sometimes he was allowed to speak. They argued about whether he should be allowed to speak this time. Someone suggested they put it to a vote. Someone else said that was beneath them. They voted on whether to vote. It was a tie.
“But he doesn't know the history,” said Brother Matthew.
“What is the history?” asked Pete.
“Don't be rude,” said Brother Matthew. He had a permanent squint
that gave his expression a mean look, but he didn't need the look. He was mean enough without it. “You will know what it is right for you to know.”
“I've seen it coming for a long time,” said Brother James, the baker, who smelled of yeast and the bourbon he used in his cakes. “I knew it couldn't last forever. Father Gabriel is backsliding.”
“The question is,” said Brother John, “what do we do now? I've been here longer than any of you. You have no idea what it was like in those days.” Brother John's hands were twisted with arthritis. He waved them in the air as he spoke. “We can't go back to that. He used to carry a skull around with him everywhere, tucked under his arm. He said it was supposed to remind us we were mortal.
If anyone looked at him cross-eyed he'd conk them on the head with it. He made us whip ourselves every night to keep us humble and he checked for the marks every day. If he didn't find any, he'd take the strap to us himself.”