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Authors: Thomas O'Malley,Cara Shores

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BOOK: This Magnificent Desolation
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Dr. Mathias looks at Duncan, pushes out his bottom lip, and rubs at it.

It's not a good or bad thing that you may have inherited this from either one of your parents, Duncan; it just is.

I don't have a father, Duncan says.

Dr. Mathias clears his throat and continues. As a group, these disorders are quite sudden yet predictable in their appearance in the sleep cycle, nonresponsive to environmental manipulation and characterized by—

He stares at the charts around his room, upon the wall, at the hagiography of ebbing sunlight flickering through the bushes outside the warped glass and at play on his fine mahogany desk, and then he looks at Duncan, one eyebrow raised in unflinching and unforgiving appraisal. Parabolas of light curve and slide across his thick spectacles.

Yes, he says, and grunts, strokes the air with a stick of unused chalk, quite naturally characterized by a retrograde amnesia. The origin of your disorder may, indeed, be the trauma we spoke of or a greater traumatic event that we have yet to uncover.

The rain returns and the room darkens and they listen to raindrops pelting the skylight and Dr. Mathias sighs and reaches over to turn on the lamp again.

Chapter 8

February 1981

Darkness has fallen and the children are in their beds and it is rapidly growing colder; tonight the temperatures are predicted to plummet to minus twenty degrees, and there has been talk of snow. The children of the Home know the schedule of the furnace as intimately as they do the bell tolling the hours of the Holy Office. They know that if you do not fall asleep before the furnace goes off, you will not sleep because of the cold, and you will not feel a reprieve of warmth again until just before dawn. You learn this, if you are old enough, within your first two weeks at the Home—if you've arrived during the summer, you are already prepared for this divine inevitability by everything else the Home has taught you—and you make sure that you are asleep before the cold touches you, that you are asleep before ten P.M., when Brother Wilhelm turns the thermostat down to forty-five, and you pray that you will be asleep by the hour
Brother Canice tolls the bell for Vigil, at midnight, or else you will be watching your chilled breath smoking the air for hours to come.

Duncan is unable to sleep, and instead listens, waiting for morning and for the electric ticking and then the spark that he knows signals the furnace to ignite. His toes feel numb. He rubs at his nose to dispel the cold and to work the hardened snot. He imagines the final hours of the people aboard the Holiday Train during the winter of 1970, the year he was born, and abandoned to the Home. He begins to shiver with the cold and even when the furnace thumps into life and hot water steams in the pipes he cannot control the chill that has taken hold of him. He pulls the sheets and blankets over his head and curls into a small shape beneath the blankets; when he lifts his head, his breath smokes the air. Eventually he rises and goes downstairs to the kitchen where a fire still burns in the woodstove, but there is no sign of Brother Canice. He sits on a hard-backed chair and listens to the wood crackling and popping in the cast-iron grate.

He falls asleep and wakes to lights shimmering in the distance. He rises and experiences a moment of confusion, a strange disembodiedness as his body betrays him. The flickering lights add to the sense of dislocation. He feels no attachment to the limbs that paddle the darkness before him, rather he is looking upon a boy stumbling, sleepwalking through the snow. On the hill before him, perhaps a quarter mile away, he sees the thirteen cars outlined against the sky and the flickering Christmas lights of the Holiday Train. His feet drag him on as if with a will entirely their own, and though he resists—he wants to turn back toward the retreating lights of the monastery—the distance between himself and the train grows shorter and shorter.

His arms are about him but he can no longer feel them; a sweet calm settles itself upon his thoughts and everything seems to slow. He knows that if only he pushes forward, ignoring the cold, the hollowness of his bones, the emptiness that seems to fill him and that is gradually replaced by a slow liquid warmth, he will discover something wondrous. On the hill before him he is certain there lies illumination
and an understanding of the type that only God grants. The drifts rise to his thighs and he seems to sink deeper and deeper with each step forward. He can see the vintage Pullman cars, ice gleaming across their red and green bodies and upon their curved roofs. From the wide windows a strange light casts its glow and the silhouettes of people within the cars move through this light, their shadows elongated and curved upon the snowdrifts, and there is the sound of voices and of laughter, of music crackling through an old radio's tinny speakers.

In front of him a blurred shape appears, becoming more and more distinct as he nears the train. And he knows before he can fully see her that this figure standing before him in the glow of the miniature lights with the storm raging about her is his mother. She stands at the edge of light cast by the Christmas lights, a light so brilliant in its incandescence that it extends twenty feet or so across the wind-polished snow. Her clothes are cloyed and damp with snow and her head is covered with a dark scarf, but how white her face is! How radiant and glowing!

Light fragments, shifts, and fractures through the billows of snow so that at times his mother appears so near that he feels he can touch her and at other times she is a figure retreating, moving away across the plain. She speaks to him, and though it is cold, he does not feel cold, wrapped as he is in the warmth and peace of her presence and the low, soft hush of her voice. But now it begins to snow, heavy and thick, and the wind is gusting, pressing the snow slantways so that she sways and shimmers blurrily and then he can no longer see. All sight and sound is obliterated; only the wind and snow and cold remain and he bends his head into it.

He sleeps again, and wakes sitting in one of the wide chairs of a Pullman carriage, looking out over the frozen landscape and the far glittering bell tower of the monastery. A transistor radio is playing Handel's
and he is filled with a sense of exhilaration now, the glorious feeling of no longer being alone, no longer stranded to
the wastes of Minnesota with a hundred abandoned children just like him.

The slate-gray sky is slowly turning bluish at the farthest edges of the horizon and the mountains of the Iron Range begin to take shape, white mist rolling from the conifers in the clefts of the valley, snow sheeting the upper peaks. He leaves the train and follows his footsteps back through the snow.

Through the fields he trudges and now, here and there, candlelight sparks in windows of the farmhouses he passes, and he sees movement within. Smoke drifts from chimneys into the cold, clear air, and there is a pain in his heart as he glimpses through kitchen windows the glow of wood fires and tables with families gathered around them for breakfast and the doors closed and frost on the barred windowpanes, and him with nowhere to go but back across the fields to the Home.

Down to the pond, and so through the courtyard, the walkway skinned with a gleaming ice, and by the chapel, deserted and silent so early in the morning before Lauds, window shutters still stamped shut and behind them sleeping girls and boys. He sees them curled up in bed, rows upon rows of them, stretching into infinity, all curled into fetal position as in a time prior to their birth, before their abandon.

Awake now, and a flame to his face, blinding. A dead weight bears him down, his aching back, his blistered feet. Slowly, his senses come back to him. The floor beneath him, cold and hard. Spittle drooling from his mouth. There comes a pressure and pull on his shoulders, urging him up. Fingers, a hand, a face floating pale in the darkness: Billy.

Duncan, are you all right?

Billy, he says. Did you see her? Did you see my mother?

Billy looks into his eyes—each time he sees Billy's eyes in his mind he is reminded of their beauty and the heartbreaking knowledge that each time he stares into them he can never stop himself from thinking, however fleetingly,
He is going to die soon
. Billy considers
what to say and is searching for the right words. A mouse is gnawing in the kitchen cabinets. Something—a small tree branch or some other windblown object—skitters down the roof.

Yes, Duncan. I saw your mother. She's beautiful.

The wood in the stove has burned down to crackling embers and the chill of the night creeps quickly into the kitchen. Duncan's feet soon fall numb upon the tiles and he looks down at them. On the floor, tracked from the door at the far end of the vestibule and surrounded by melting snow, dirt, and leaves, his bare footprints glisten wetly.

Duncan, Billy says, staring at the floor, his eyes wide with wonder. Where have you been?

Duncan's fingertips and toes suffer a mild frostbite and develop soft, red, pinched lesions. In a warm room, after coming in out of the cold, they swell as blood rushes brightly into them and then they begin to itch and burn as if he'd been pricked by a needle. Julie rubs a salve over them to help but the only time he feels any relief is at night when Father Wilhelm lowers the thermostat and all warmth leaves the rooms. Brother Canice looks at Duncan's feet when he comes into the kitchen and shakes his head and says I told you you'd get chilblains if you didn't wear your slippers.

The nights continue to shorten; soon there is still light at five o'clock, and when Mass ends and the Brothers are calling the children to supper, the courtyard is lit by the last bright angles of sunlight fading over the hillside and the lamplights come on shining blurrily through a warm mist that drifts slowly across the grounds, altering all sense of distance and space and sound. And so that strange and divine moment in which Duncan had seen his mother passes even before he can really and truly hold it to his heart and, for a little while, he stops thinking about her altogether.

Chapter 9

I have sometimes dreamed that from time to time hours detached themselves from the lives of the angels and came here below to traverse the destinies of men.


April 1981

After Father Magnusson's Requiem Mass, in the storm of 1970, his body was placed in the monastery's charnel house, where it lay for two months among the skulls and bones of the past until the thaw of spring, when the ground could finally be hacked at with shovels and pickaxes and gouged open by a backhoe. The novitiates say that the permittivity of the Home's charnel house is unlike any other, that it's a natural conduit for spirits, for demons, and for miracles. Perhaps that is why Billy, Julie, and Duncan find themselves drawn to this place: it has a memory and a sense of what has come
and gone, and the spirits here hold on to what remains, much like the children do with their dreams and their wishes.

At the edge of the Garden of Holy Martyrs, the charnel house is a place rarely visited by other children or by priests, and only rarely by Mrs. Bergin, the monastery's Swedish charwoman, but almost every day of the spring, after Father Malachy's class, they come here. Sixteen whitewashed flagstone steps lead down to its arched, Byzantium entranceway. The door is made of maple three inches thick and decorated with the symbols of the lamb and the dove. You push open the door and step within and, as your eyes adjust to the shifting hues of shadow and light, you smell incense of storax and cascarilla, smoky ash and loam, the clear distinct metallic scent of running water.

The charnel house is made up of a dozen or so barrel vaults, each fronted by finely wrought metal bars and gates through which the remains of the dead can be viewed—the bleached and aged skulls arranged facing out so that the Brothers and penitents can stare into the faces of the dead.

In the center of the chamber, beneath the high domed skylight, is St. John's Fountain, made of rough-hewn stone and from which well water gurgles and pools in a font, and then passes back into the stone once more to a natural subterranean cistern. When they are thirsty, they cup their hands and drink from its stone font, where the water is continuously rushing and cold and so clear that they can see the stone bottom of the well, sparkling with mica and quartz, even as the water churns and bubbles and cascades from the stone lip. They clench their teeth with the cold and Billy's eyes seem all the bluer for the pleasurable shock of it.

At the far end of the room, beyond the fountain, stairs lead to storage and to the old refectory, a long, narrow room where the Brothers and the bishop sat for meals a hundred years before the monastery became an orphanage and hospice for children. Along the staircase to the old refectory are niches with the remains of Brothers and Unknowns, children orphaned at the Home with no record and no
name and no grieving parent. Some seem to be little more than babies, and Duncan imagines cradling one of their skulls in his hands and gently covering the shattered and as yet unformed fontanele, providing it the protection it never received in life.

Julie dances through sunlight cast from the high-domed glass at the center of the ceiling. She lifts the hem of her dress and her pale legs seems to dissolve as she steps through the shafts of light; the slight muscles in her thighs flex and strain as she pushes off one foot and then the other. As she dances, she recites the tale of her abandonment at the Home and of her mother's stardom. Her words resound in the hollow barrel vaults of the stone room and off the casks, barrels of wax and pitch, the jars of pickled vegetables and meats stored for the long winter.

My mother is a Great Actress, she says, and intones in an exaggerated English accent, a Great Actress who left me here to hone my theatrical skills. Allow me to introduce myself, fellow thespians. I am Madame Julie Preston, of the Royal Thule Academy! And now, let me perform for you my own special rendition of Preston Coldwater's
Patti and Belle

Bees drone lazily in the air. Sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, Billy and Duncan nod sluggishly as Julie dances in the heat, dances until her dress is plastered to her skin, her bare feet slapping the stone. They are the audience to her mother's final dramatic performance at the Humboldt Theater in New York City, a week after Julie was left at the home.

BOOK: This Magnificent Desolation
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