Authors: Thomas O'Malley,Cara Shores
The Home was built in the middle of the eighteenth century by the Capuchin Padre Martin de Lupe and his followers, the last of the Spanish missionaries, a fractured group of friars, brothers, Redemptorists, ascetics, Gnostics, and priests from the Northwest missionary trail who came across the Minnesota plains aboard Conestoga wagons as winter turned to spring, and to them the verdant undulating land seemed touched by the hand of God. They built a small farming community, lumbered the vast evergreens and white pine, planted crops from seeds they'd carried with them almost two thousand miles: wheat, corn, and barley. They ploughed and excavated the prairie of stone and built their first chapel and small grain mill; they dug ditches and silage fields and hewed rock and wood, mined the ore of the Iron Range and, slowly, under the patriarchate of Padre Martin de Lupe, over thirty-six years they built the Blessed House of Gray Brothers of Mercy.
But no one mentions Padre Martin de Lupe anymore. His name
has been stricken from the Litany of Saints and from the blessings and benedictions, but the histories in the library reference him still: a man who might have been beatified if not for the events of 1815, but was instead hanged in the Home's gardens for raping and murdering a local farm girl who had sought asylum there from her father. A black-and-white image of him remained:
The Hanged Priest of the Garden
. In the picture there is no sign of the lake that is there now or the arboretum. Only the tree remains, an ancient elm spotted black with disease.
Duncan thinks of Padre Martin de Lupe often. He is a ravager of children, the Black Angel who lurks in the wine cellar and in the catacombs and labyrinths, in the empty casket hold and charnel house, and who, to this day, haunts the children's graveyard, cradling the worsted, fleshy knot of his broken neck and his head, cantered at a broken angle against his right shoulder, from the back of which hangs a great wing that drags a yard upon the ground, and when he speaks, his voice is a hiss, a gasp, and, quite possibly, the last thing you will ever hear.
The Black Angel will get youâthis is what the novitiates tell the children to scare them on nights when the film projector has been set up in the playroom and the cicadas are droning outside in the muggy, tumescent night and the black, glistening trees seem to drip with moisture and insects are falling and crackling on the bug zapper in flashes of strange epileptic light. Later they will hear him making his way from the children's graveyard and then plodding upon the stone toward their bedrooms. The Black Angel who never sleeps and who looks up at the windows of the sleeping children at night just waiting for the right moment to climb the crumbling stone walls like some misshapen spider, to crawl beneath their barely parted window, leaving a viscous trail upon the sill, and into their bedrooms, where he will spread his great maggot-infested wings in a great dihedral before embracing their souls and pulling them to his black breast.
Father Toibin rages whenever he discovers the novitiates have
been talking about Padre Martin de Lupe to the children, who are both shocked and pleased by his maddened fits. After hearing of the most recent macabre tale, he comes into Father Malachy's morning classroom and, standing before them, looks upon their ashen faces. His voice resonates off the timbers and about the walls:
In whose care do you entrust your bodies and your souls?
In God's care
, Duncan and other children chant in unison, and Father Malachy joins in as well, his eyes glistening with fervor.
In whose love can darkness never take hold?
In God's love
, they chorus. His fire feeds their passion, and they feel lifted from their chairs with it. Had he asked, they would have stormed from the room and yoked the nearest novitiate to the Hanging Tree in the manner of Padre de Lupe and of the Old Testament with the Chosen laying waste to the temples of the Idolaters.
But when the sun goes down and shadows creep across the courtyard and cold comes running from the northern plains, and the lights flicker and the children's breaths steam the crepuscular light, and the lands that surround the Home seem so vast as to be impenetrable and from their windows they see the vastness of that plain upon which here and there a small farmhouse flickers with a light that seems as distant as the stars, then everything changes.
When Brother Wilhelm dampens the lantern wicks with a shaking, palsied hand after they have brushed their teeth and said their prayers and climbed into bed, and all light is extinguished, the only thing that remains is the scent of tallow smoke, ash, and wax, and the crucifix that glows blue from the center of the wall. Duncan listens to the whimper of scared children tossing in their sleep, dreaming of the Black Angel and of mothers and fathers who were once there, perhaps, and are now gone, or of those shadowy adult figures who lurk in the dark of their minds and never leave. Perhaps it is a simple
longing for that which they've never had, and such an absence makes them call out in the night.
He imagines what his past must have been like, and there are times when he believes that he can almost will it into existence. He has a mother and even a father, gray, silvery-backed amorphous things that periodically solidify into shapes with limbs and strangely familiar, sad featuresâhe sees them standing in some doorway, his bedroom perhaps, the lamp-lit hallway aglow behind them preventing him from seeing them clearly though he is aware that they are looking in on him and safeguarding him as he leepsâonly to drift apart in the ether so that he cannot draw them together again in his mind. He stares at the ceiling of his room and feels his brow tense with the effort to will them back into some acceptable shape, but it is no use; they are gone and he cannot retrieve them. There is the scent of tallow and cigarette smokeâperhaps the faint trace of perfume? A man's aftershave or cologne? Of dry wood and bright recently painted walls unlike the damp-mold-spore taint here, with the permanent stains upon the walls and ceilings and the dewy, greasy consistency of the damp pillow beneath his head.
About him the other boys sigh and moan and exhale in their sleep like some great incoming and withdrawing tideâthe moan of the relentless seaâand as he listens and closes his eyes, he is rocked by the sound of it and knows that strange comfort that comes with familiarity, despite the sadness and fear and emptiness the sounds of their sleep evoke, and why very often he leaves his bed and pads to the kitchen in search of Brother Canice.
Tonight Duncan waits for Brother Canice to toll the bells for Matins, listens to the peal of the bells, their soft rising and falling, and, finally, their ebbâglad on this particular night for Brother Canice's restraintâbefore he gets up and treads the hall. Like some strange psychic reverberation that reaches out to touch them in the night, they know when the other is awake and this is where they know they'll find each other, placing wood in the stove, stoking the embers, putting the kettle up for tea, or spooning milk warming in a saucepan upon the Titan with the windows frozen and the walls creaking slightly as, outside, ice hardens and shifts, splinters with long, dull cracking sounds upon the stone and clapboard.
Brother Canice has just placed two mugs of steaming milk upon the charred and battered woodblock table and is sitting in the near dark before the woodstove when Duncan patters in upon stockinged feet. The old black-and-white with its rabbit-ear antenna wrapped in tinfoil flickers soundless images, casts them upon the wall.
You're not sleeping again? Brother Canice grumbles, his lower lip bunched with sunflower seeds.
Neither are you, Duncan says.
Brother Canice shrugs, spits casually into the grate, then: You're not wearing your slippers either. He shakes his head. You'll end up getting sick walking these cold floors. I won't be responsible for you getting sick.
I'll wear them next time, Duncan says, and when Brother Canice continues to stare at him, he adds, I promise.
Chilblains, that's what you'll getâchilblains. And they're no fun. Trust me. Brother Canice spits into the grate, lifts the hem of his cassock, stoops to pry off his shoes, and then vigorously rubs his feet together, one on top of the other, first the left and then the right, so hard it looks as if it must hurt.
He opens the grate with a soiled dish towel and throws another long onto the flames. His face is momentarily illuminated by flame-light: orange and crimson and then dark sliding down his brow, his wide, full cheeks. He closes the door and sits back with a grunt onto his chair.
What was it like, he asks suddenly, God talking to you?
Duncan looks at him. He's never asked him this before.
I mean, was it a big whooshing sound or something, or did he actually speak?
I thought you didn't believe that God spoke to me.
I'm just asking a question. It doesn't have to mean a thing.
I don't know. It's hard to explain. You just know, that's all.
When I was young, I used to hear the sound of my heart beating on my pillow, you know, through my ear, and I thought it was God.
Brother Canice considers what he has just said for a moment, and adds: Or perhaps it's only now that I think it was God. Do you ever do that? Put your ear up against your pillow and listen to that thumping, like footsteps shaking the heavens.
Brother Canice shakes his head. That's why you can't sleep, he
says and keeps at his feet. It's like watching a dog scratching fleas. When he's done, he sighs and stands, pushes the tins aside on the shelf, and lifts down his old Vulcanite transistor radio.
Here, take this, he says and places it on the table. Its black resin is stained and blurred by grime, the back disfigured and partially melted from the heat of its transistor tubes. Brother Canice chews on his sunflower seeds and stares pensively at it as he spits and his seeds hiss and whistle in the stove. It's a radio, he says and raps his knuckles sharply against its top as if to confirm this.
It's yours. You listen to it and see what it tells you. When I was a boy, I'd listen to it late at night and it told me things, things only I could understand. Once it even told me my future. If that doesn't work, you can always listen to music.
Duncan wants to ask Brother Canice if he is truly a Brother or merely an imposter, and if this is the future that the radio spoke of, but he holds his tongue. Brother Canice stares at Duncan, unblinking, chewing his seeds like cud, holding their edges between the tips of his yellow teeth, and Duncan reaches out and, saying thank you, takes the radio.
Perhaps it will help you sleep, Brother Canice says and shrugs. It never worked for me.
After reciting the rosary again, Duncan climbs into bed and turns the radio's knob low, watching as the deep-set black and gold frequency dial fills with warm amber light and, slowly, as the tubes glow through the partially melted back, the hum of electricity buzzing softly through the speakers and the smell of rubber thickening in the room.
He scans across the radio's wavelengths, picking up meager signals here and there, and finally listening to the beeps and squeaks of satellites passing twenty-two thousand miles overhead as he waits
for some other sound to emerge from the speakers. He doesn't know what he's waiting for exactly, perhaps the sound of his mother or father or some other ghost from his past to come crackling and spitting through the ether with news of his future.
Parasomnias, or sleep problems, are common in childhood, Dr. Mathias says, and Duncan has to remind himself that the doctor is speaking and he must concentrate on his words. Clouds pass above the skylight in his office and the room turns ashen; the light trembles as clouds thin or thicken and then rain clouds move in and Dr. Mathias switches on a floor lamp next to his desk, illuminating his mahogany desk and turning the finely polished wood a rich, translucent brown.
Dr. Mathias clears his throat and begins again: A distinction is made between problems that are abnormal, such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy, and problems that are behavioral in origin, such as night terrors, somnambulism, and enuresis.
E-N-U-R-E-S-I-S, Duncan speaks aloud.
Dr. Mathias frowns, clearly irritated by his intrusion. Duncan, there is no need to do that with your mouth. You do not need to contort it in such a manner. You enunciate your words perfectly well. You speak perfectly well.
And then he sighs. Yes. Bedwetting. But, of course, you do not wet the bed, Duncan. That is not what we're talking about here.
As far as Dr. Mathias is concerned, the only thing wrong with Duncan is that he has suffered from a range of sleeping disorders that many children his age are prone to.
This is nothing to be alarmed about, he exclaims. He tells Duncan that he is an extremely shy and anxious young boy but that, too, is nothing to worry about; it is merely the “type” of boy he is and there is no point in mucking about and trying to make him into something he's not, now is there? Absolutely not.
A few fat raindrops thump the glass and then the clouds are gone and the late-afternoon sun is shining brightly through the windows and Duncan wonders what Billy and Julie are doing and whether Father Tobin is playing baseball with the other kids in the field behind the chapel. Dr. Mathias sighs and switches off the lamp.
These parasomnias that we're talking about, Duncanâand he waves at the airâthese sleep disorders, they're episodic in nature and are a reflection of central nervous system immaturity. Thus, they are more common in children than in adults and are generally outgrown with time. There is often a family history positive for them. Perhaps your mother or your father?
I don't have a father, Duncan says. I was born without a father. Just like Jesus. Duncan makes sure not to mention God, but even so, Dr. Mathias's face has a look of displeasure, as if he's sucked on something bitter. Duncan only meant to mention Jesus as a comparison; he knows he is not Jesus, and now wishes he could take it back. But then he is angry. If Dr. Mathias cared at all, he never would have mentioned his mother or father. If he knew him in the way that he says he does and has sat here with him twice a week, every week, year after year, then he would know that his mother abandoned him and that she was alone when she did, perhaps as alone as he is now. Briefly he wonders, as he often does, what his mother might be doing at that moment or whether she is dead, and what she looks like inside her
coffin beneath the dirt: pale and still and as beautiful as he remembers from his dreams, twined around in a shroud of white root-tendrils from plants and bushes and small trees above ground.