I nearly fell asleep on the altar during the Christmas carols. Midnight Mass is a blur in my memory. Waking up Christmas morning, I couldn’t remember the end of it. I recall standing at the foot of the altar just before the end, improvising a windy Christmas message. I cringe, remembering my seasonal enthusiasm. In the morning, when I dragged myself back for the ten o’clock Mass, I found the vestments strewn around the sacristy. A tumbler of wine got me through the next hour.
What would it be like, I wondered, not being alone?
People were brief, almost shy, at the door afterwards, and I was grateful. And I was grateful for the sharp, clean air, refreshing as a glass of water. Exhaustion, I told myself. I’m just tired. The pieties of Advent and the wearying traditions of the Nativity. Hours sitting in the confessional, waiting for the occasional penitent. Unexpected visitors with small gifts. Fussing with the church. Lights, trees, the Nativity scene. Then the masses. It seemed more frantic than usual because that Christmas fell on a Monday.
Effie didn’t come home for the holiday. Did she really think of it as home?
I slept most of the afternoon on Christmas Day and woke up in the dark, feeling uneasy. Poured a drink. The phone rang and it was Stella. She seemed stuffed up.
“You’ve probably been wondering,” she said. “I sort of dropped off the face of the earth.”
“How are you now? You don’t sound so hot.”
“A little touch of the flu.”
“Ah, that’s too bad. How are Danny and Jessie? It must be difficult for them.”
“They’re getting by. I was supposed to go to Hawthorne to have dinner there, but I couldn’t face it. The flu got me off the hook.”
“The flu can dig in this time of year.”
“I’ll be okay. Feel free to come over. I don’t think I’m infectious anymore. But I don’t have a turkey. Is that okay?”
“Turkey is overrated,” I said.
“Like a lot of other things.”
I felt the irresistible urge for another drink. Thought better of it. Looking out the big window at the bay. So peaceful there. Tiny lights in the distance, on the mainland. Outside, the wind was stirring. You could hear it whispering. The bay moved, repositioning itself to listen. The wind was trying to say something. I strained to hear. She’s still my friend, I thought.
christmas night, ’76. the evening became a blur with surprising speed. there was rum and wine. many bottles of wine. i remember a long table. at least fourteen people, all talking simultaneously. jacinta beside me, flushed and merry. plates of food. golden chunks of chicken and thick crescents of crusted brown potato. large bowls of salad. my comprehension of the language improves with every drink. there are long disclosures about life in unimaginable places. the excitement of political turmoil all around. toasts to ernesto cardenal, obando y bravo, the dawn of hope in managua. someone cried out vinceremos, and the place went still as everybody stared awkwardly at alfonso’s
flushed face. jacinta murmured vinceremos and raised her glass. then the babble resumed, punctuated by explosions of laughter. she squeezed my hand. vinceremos. we will triumph. life was suddenly a torrent in my veins.
Stella was pale and bundled for warmth. “Come in,” she said. “I’m making toddies. You’ll join me?”
“Sure.” Pleasantly surprised.
A priest rarely gets to see a woman’s naked face. Stella’s, that night, revealed dark shadows below the eyes and the small crinkles time etches there. Her lips were dry, her skin sallow, hair captured and secured by a small elastic band, except for a fugitive lock that draped the brow, occasionally blocking an eye.
This, I thought, is what intimacy is like.
after everyone was gone, jacinta started cleaning up. alfonso
told her: leave it for the morning; it will be easier then. you
should sleep here anyway. it’s late.
you’re sure? she said. it’s christmas, what could happen? i really
should go home.
just to be on the safe side, he said. you know where the spare
“Let’s make a promise,” Stella said. “Tonight we won’t talk about Danny. Is that okay?”
We talked about her work. She was a high school guidance counsellor with degrees in psychology. We talked about marriage, betrayal, alienation. I remember listening intently, refilling glasses, clinging to slippery details, trying to store them in the memory. Determined not to forget. But failing—there were so many glasses, so many cascading images. I remember her paleness went away. Face flushed, eyes shone. Eyes wept.
And then Danny’s name. “We agreed not to talk about it,” she said. “It’s all too terrible.”
I think I sobered momentarily, but there were soon more tears. I held her briefly. But mostly I remember just sitting, staring at the table, talking. She was listening intently. Voices and confusion.
She interrupted me. “Stella,” she said, now smiling. “I’m … Stella.” She enunciated her name carefully.
“What did I call you?”
i want to see where you sleep, she said.
what about alfonso? i said.
world war three wouldn’t wake alfonso, she said.
and, jokingly, i asked: how would you know?
I woke up on her chesterfield. My head was on a pillow and there was a quilt bunched on the floor. I sat up quickly. Fully clothed, thank God. The house was silent. No evidence in the kitchen of where we’d sat. Table clear. Cupboard tidy. Not a glass or dish or empty bottle in sight. The place smelled antiseptic, as if scrubbed by fairies overnight.
I realized that I was conscious of all this because the room was filled with a soft blue light. Through a kitchen window I could see the black spruces on the mountainside, the snow packed around them in a harsh contrast. And the roof of my telltale car parked in her driveway. The clock above the sink reported that it was seven-fifteen. A surge of panic drove me to my feet.
Driving down the mountain road, I saw three recognizable cars go by. Men heading for the mill, irritably alert. One pale face turned toward me as his car flashed by. The priest on the road at that hour? Somebody sick on the mountain. Maybe that’s what they would think. The priest should always get the benefit of the doubt.
The sky was a dark blue then with large cold clouds racing, giving the towering church steeple the appearance of instability. The swift clouds would stop and the church would sway. I had to look away, head spinning. I imagined the soft darkness and the silence inside. The unwelcoming house waiting.
The echo of the church door closing lingered as I walked toward the front and knelt in the sanctuary. Candles flickered. Silence returned, broken only by the occasional mysterious creak or snap. I had called her Jacinta. A wave of sorrow swept up out of nowhere and I lay flat, face down, arms spread. Jesus, what is happening? There was no reply. The red carpet gave off a sweet-spiced odour, some kind of powder the women sprinkle when they vacuum.
“Alfonso, you must speak to me.”
But it is Jacinta who replies.
“Happiness grows from the unity of heart and soul …”
Her hand was dry and delicate and warm upon my brow.
“Are you happy?”
“I am,” I said.
“I love you,” she said.
“And I love you.”
The hand was gentle, respectful. Squeezing my shoulder. The voice saying hello.
“I saw the car in front. The door was open and the dome light on. I was worried about your battery. Then I realized you were in here. I thought maybe there was something wrong. You’re okay, Father?”
“Yes. I know it seems strange.”
“You remember me?” he asked. “Archie the fiddler … Don’t worry about it. I’ve known strange—I’ve been to New York City.”
He was squatting beside me, staring intently at his hands, working at something with his fingers. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, swiftly licking at a crooked little cigarette. “Actually … I hear there’s lots of religions use this stuff in their liturgy.”
I looked at his face and he was smiling broadly.
He struck a match on his thumbnail, inhaled a cloud of smoke. Held his breath. “I don’t suppose …” he said, exhaling, holding it toward me.
“No,” I said quickly.
“It isn’t easy,” he said.
“No, it isn’t.”
“That’s what I was telling Donnie. Think twice before you jump into something like this.” He waved the cigarette around, taking in the silent church, the emptiness.
“How is he? Have you heard?”
“Okay, I guess.” He stood. “I’d better mosey. Some old one is going to walk in here any minute now to light a candle for somebody. I think she’d find this weird. Unless she’s been to New York City. Which would be unlikely.”
I struggled to my feet.
Stella called at noon to ask how I was feeling.
“Fine,” I lied.
“I’m glad we talked … It explains a lot.”
I wanted to ask: What did I tell you and what does it explain? But there was a sinewy hand grasping my throat, blocking the words.
Finally I said: “I think I’m losing my mind.”
Or did I only think I said it?
I finally reached him on the day after Boxing Day.
“I was devastated,” Bell said, sounding it. “Has anybody figured out why?”
The connection was noisy, but the voice was unmistakable. He seemed to be shouting.
“Everybody and nobody,” I said. “Mullins says the fishery. He was in a lot of debt and the prospects here aren’t great. He was even thinking of leaving for the West to look for work.”
“My God. Is that true?”
“We have to talk.”
He was shouting. “What? Talk?”
“Yes,” I shouted back. “I want to talk to you. How well did you know him? You were going to try to get in touch with him last summer.”
I thought we’d lost the connection, but I could still hear traffic roaring in the background. Car horns blaring. Someone spoke to him and he covered the phone for a moment.
“I’m back,” he said.
“Where are you?”
“Oh,” he said hesitantly. “Miami, actually. Combining business and a little holiday. As you can tell, I’m on a cellphone.”
I cleared my throat. “When will you be back in Toronto?”
“Not for ages. I have a place in the Virgin Islands. I’m going there for a few months.”
“Did you manage to talk to him last summer, when you were here?”
“Look,” he said, “why don’t I get right back to you on a real phone.”