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Authors: Thomas O'Malley,Cara Shores

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BOOK: This Magnificent Desolation
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Watching, Duncan feels the air humming at his fingertips as if it is a charged, violent thing, stirred from its sleeping suspension by Julie's emotions. He sits as though entranced and listens to the minute, almost imperceptible reverberations of the charnel house and the Home. Dust motes tumble in frenetic cartwheels in the bright shafts of white light.

When she is done, Julie bows and the white, center part in her
hair is visible. Duncan and Billy applaud as she sits, and Duncan's heart quickens at the sight of sweat gleaming upon the insides of her thighs and in the naked, hollow spaces at the back of her knees. She sighs, leans against the cool wall, and looks upward. On the domed ceiling there is a painted sky of varying shades of blue, white clouds, and a thousand silver stars, all arranged in distinct constellations. And in the center of this is the skylight through which the true sky is visible.

Even the children's graveyard can only hold so many bodies, Julie says, sighing, for these are some of the things she knows about the monastery. Often she reminds them that she has been here the longest. Stay with me, she says, mimicking Father Toibin, and nothing will touch you.

She nods toward the barrel vaults and toward the stairs beneath, where the babies are interned. After the corpse has decayed, its remains are brought here, she continues, or to St. Katrine's ossuary in Stockholdt. This is where they brought the dead from the blizzard of '70, the winter my mother abandoned me here.

All those people aboard the train?

The train, the fields, all the homes about Thule. I think it was thirty or forty in all.

The children too?

The children too.

From the far vault a host of blank, grinning skulls stares back. Duncan looks at the hollowed cavities of the eyes sockets, the flared holes of the nostrils, and the bare, gleaming row of cruel-looking teeth on the exposed jawbone, and wonders which ones belong to the dead of the Holiday Train. But of course they are not here—they were placed in the ground as soon as it could receive them that spring.

What about you, Billy? he asks. Duncan must stare at him for a moment until the image of the skulls is gone and there is only Billy
before him, pale and wizened and chewing on his cracked lips and looking much like a skull himself. When Julie admonishes him, Billy stops and purses them thoughtfully instead.

My father was a Green Beret, he says. Fought in Vietnam and won the Purple Heart. Got shot—

In the butt, Julie says.

—in the …, Billy laughs, in the butt!

Their laughter resounds in the large stone expanse. Water sloshes and ripples and churns in the fountain. Duncan has the sensation of the bones shifting and settling with the vibration of their laughter. The skulls grin back from the dark recesses. Sunlight refracts off the water pooling in the font and shimmers wavily upon the stone floor.

That's why, Billy continues, that's why he couldn't be with me. He was needed in the war. He risked his life saving his platoon at Khe Lhong. If he'd been with me, they would all have died. He nods to himself. Just imagine that, he says, that's got to be thirty men, right?

But what about your mother, Billy? Where was she?

My mother? I don't know. I don't know where she was, but that's not important anyway.

Why?

Billy stares at the skulls as if in silent communion with them. The air smells of ash and loam and of wood smoke from a Brother burning the damp bales of ruined hay cut during last season's topping. There will be leaves and rotted deadfall cleared from the fields for the plow, stones piled atop one another along the wall before the windbreak in preparation of the sowing and planting. A thin thread of black smoke curls above their heads through the ridged, tinctured glass. Duncan can hear children in the playing field. Others helping the Brothers in the gardens.

I hate my mother, Billy says, and for a moment Duncan is convinced that he has misheard him, and he laughs and Billy stares at him.

What are you laughing at?

You, saying you hate your mother. That's funny.

But Billy merely stares at him, and it is the first time Duncan has seen such anger in his eyes. He knows that Billy is suddenly creating a picture of his mother in his mind, the mother who abandoned him, and because his love is so great, so too is his hurt—the betrayal that he believes, wants to believe, he will never forgive. And even as Duncan understands this, he is also confused and startled by it.

Shut your mouth, shit-ass! My mother isn't important. She doesn't matter. It's my dad that's going to come back for me. He's going to be wearing his uniform and his medals and he's going to introduce me to all the men he saved and he'll tell them I'm his son and if it wasn't for them, he would have been with me and just how lucky they are … And then, although he continues to glare at Duncan, Billy seems to run out of words.

Billy, Julie begins, and reaches out to touch him, but he slaps her hand away.

Sunlight fades from the room and the darker hues of painted blue upon the ceiling take prominence and Billy, Julie, and Duncan watch, stilled, as the room turns to night. The painted clouds fade into the background and the brushed stars merge in glittering cadence with the sudden nightscape visible through the skylight, the row of twelve double-arched windows that encircle the top of the dome. Duncan feels a thickening in his throat, a constriction as if he might cry. Billy has never been angry at him before.

I'm sorry, Billy, he says.

Why? My dad's coming to get me. Ain't nothing sorry about that, fuckwad. You'll see.

Chapter 10

May 1981

After Vespers and collation, NBC's
Saturday Night at the Movies
or ABC's
Movie of the Week
plays on the wide color console in the priests' lounge. Officially the children aren't allowed in the priests' quarters except on Movie Night, which is usually on Thursday when there are no Holy Days of Obligation, but Julie, Billy, and Duncan often find a way to sneak behind the large settee that crowds the room before the priests have made their way from chapel or the dining hall, and this is where they'll be when
Saturday Night at the Movies
begins playing.

But this night is different. Instead of a recent release, the television is playing a special on the Apollo lunar landing. They peer from behind the feather-down pillows thick with cat hair at the edge of the settee, and Duncan is struck by the sharp, melancholy black-and-white images on the screen. There is the young President Kennedy
before a crowd of students at Rice University, his mouth working without sound. Brother Wilhelm fiddles with the cantankerous, loose knob, and Duncan hears John F. Kennedy's voice:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …

Billy nudges Duncan. What is he saying?

Shhhhh. I'm trying to hear.

We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced …

Duncan, Billy says, tugging at his sleeve.

It's the moon, Billy. They're sending a man to the moon.

… on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body.

I know, Duncan, Billy says, exasperated. They did this before we were born.

He doesn't remember, Billy, Julie says. He doesn't remember any of this.

But Duncan, they didn't—

Hush, Billy, Julie hisses, and shakes her head at him.

And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

The program cuts to footage of the Apollo 11 moon voyage and the launch from Cape Canaveral. Duncan watches transfixed as the
Saturn V
ignites and flame surrounds the base of the rocket's hull. For long moments the rocket seems to hover there, trembling slightly, ponderously upon its pillar of flame, as if it might simply keel over and
hurtle, cartwheeling, into the earth, but then slowly, slowly the great rocket begins to move upward, vibrating with the effort of defying gravity, its plating shimmering with shattering ice cascading down the length of its super-cooled hull.

Duncan can feel the thundering vibrations of the rocket's blast as it presses its way against gravity toward the moon. And, at the top of that colossal rocket, the Apollo command module,
Columbia
, with its three astronauts sitting as if upon the head of a combustible needle. Farther and farther the rocket presses, an eight-hundred-foot blazing orange tail arcing northeast across the late autumn sky above the Florida Keys.

And then, the first blurry images from Buzz Aldrin's camera of the lunar surface: desolate, cratured plains strewn with rocks and glinting regolith and the black foreshortened horizon beyond and, farther, the curving plane of the planet suggesting only a greater, absolute darkness. Duncan imagines the moon's coldness and the silence and the absence of color or sound.

Magnificent desolation, Aldrin says, and Duncan murmurs in agreement as his words hang in the vacuum between sensation and thought and as the moon's panorama curves out into blackness.
Magnificent desolation
.

Duncan, Billy begins again, whispering conspiratorially. They never made it. They never made it off the moon. The moon jumper failed to blast off and they were left stuck there. The other astronaut just kept going around the moon waiting for them.

Billy makes a looping motion with his finger and says, Around and around until he died. They all died. What they showed on TV after that, it was all a lie. They'd filmed it before they left.

Hush, Julie hisses. Duncan, don't listen to a word he says. He's making it all up. He's just being silly and spiteful.

The astronauts' ghostly images flit and tremble on the screen as they move back and forth in surreal motion, bounding across the gray, pockmarked surface and stirring silver star dust, which no wind ever
moves, imprinting their footsteps forever upon a surface last touched by God.

Brother Wilhelm reaches a palsied and withered hand forward and turns the knob to the left, and with an audible click and hum of transponders cooling, the image of the astronauts and the moon fades slowly from the four corners of the television screen to one single, glowing dot at its center, and then It is gone entirely as if it had never been, and only the shimmering white spark that momentarily impresses itself upon Duncan's sensitive iris, and remains shaking on the inside of his eyelids long after he closes his eyes, convinces him it was real.

Brother Wilhelm is asleep in his armchair, and before they leave, Duncan tenderly touches his hand, which lies trembling upon the armrest. For a moment Duncan stands and listens to Brother Wilhelm's apnea and the long seconds of silence between his shunting and staggered breaths.

When he takes the stairs to bed, one of the boys has already dimmed the lamps. With Brother Wilhelm sleeping, they know they will have an extra hour or two of heat; the hallway is warm with the sound of water bubbling in the radiators and of boys' snoring contently in their sleep. Dressed in his pajamas and wrapped in a blanket, with Brother Canice's radio glowing from his bedside table and crackling and hissing with static, Duncan sits on his bed and stares out at the night sky. High over the prairie shines a full moon encircled by a ring of bluish-white phosphorescence. The ghostly haze of ice and moisture casts its shape in magnified projection: its great maria, those shadowy plains known as seas, and its cratured scars—the illusion of cheek, nose bridge, and brow—creating the sense of some benevolent, slightly curious or confused face, peering down upon and illuminating the snow-covered plains of Thule. From the radio comes a sudden high peak of static and then the disembodied and fractured sound of voices carried by radio waves across the vast distance of space over a decade before:

102:44:45 ALDRIN: 100 feet, 3½ down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light
.

102:44:54 ALDRIN: Okay. 75 feet. And it's looking good. Down a half, 6 forward
.

102:45:02 DUKE: 60 seconds.

102:45:04 ALDRIN: Light's on
.

102:45:08 ALDRIN: 60 feet, down 2½. [Pause] 2 forward. 2 forward. That's good.

102:45:17 ALDRIN: 40 feet, down 2½. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 ALDRIN: 30 feet, 2½ down. [Garbled] shadow.

102:45:25 ALDRIN: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half
.

102:45:31 DUKE: 30 seconds.

102:45:32 ALDRIN: Drifting forward just a little bit; that's good. [Garbled] [Pause]

102:45:40 ALDRIN: Contact Light.

102:45:43 ARMSTRONG: Shutdown

102:45:44 ALDRIN: Okay. Engine Stop
.

102:45:45 ALDRIN: ACA out of Detent
.

102:45:46 ARMSTRONG: Out of Detent. Auto
.

102:45:47 ALDRIN: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent Engine Command Override, Off. Engine Arm, Off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 DUKE: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 ARMSTRONG: Engine arm is off. [Pause] Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

BOOK: This Magnificent Desolation
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