“I don’t care what you think you saw.”
The bishop’s neck is pulsing, a purple swelling throbbing at the centre of his forehead, outraged roseola nose aglow.
“I know what I saw.”
“You think you know.”
“Our eyes play tricks.”
“We know nothing. We believe. We have faith. It is our only source of hope. But that isn’t the point. You had no goddamned business spying.”
Spying? I just stare.
“I sent you there to help them out, not to snoop.”
I turn away from his outrage. Study the crucifix above his desk.
“You’re talking about a saint,” he says, quiet now, the rage replaced by injury. “A saint. A prince among men. I know him well. I’ve known him since we were students. You should aspire someday to be his equal.”
The bishop, finally calmed, declared that it was my “asymmetrical upbringing,” my “dysfunctional home life” that was at the root of my deficiencies. It caused me to see the worst in everyone, he said, and to be too inclined to read things in then jump to wrong conclusions. I don’t understand the family dynamic, and until I do, I’ll never be a parish priest. A parish is the ideal family, he said.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
He waved an impatient hand. “Let’s not get analytical. Let’s just say you need some special on-the-job experience. Which is why we’re thinking of sending you away for a while.”
“We’re thinking of somewhere in the Third World, where things are simple and straightforward. A good place for you to experience the richness of family and parish life and the undiluted faith of the common people.”
The Third World?
“We happen to have an arrangement with the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa …”
“They’re expecting you next week.”
I poured a whisky, sipped it straight. It was Tegucigalpa then, Creignish now. In a way it’s easier this time, I thought. Nothing in my life, since then or yet unlived, could ever be like Tegucigalpa. And this time I’ll have months to make the mental adjustments. And who knows? Things change. By spring we could all be different people.
I surveyed my tiny room. And if I go, I won’t have much to pack. Mostly books. Some photographs. A frugal wardrobe. One of the advantages of my calling: we travel light.
he sun was slow in ’94. The drift ice from the Gulf of St. Lawrence stayed late, blocking the advance of spring somewhere near Montreal. The wind still cold, the hills around me tawny, splotches of dark evergreens brooding.
Crossing the causeway, I felt a sudden need for a toilet and I remembered there was a washroom at the information bureau they installed on the island side of the strait many years ago, just after they finished the link to the mainland. But the place was locked up, awaiting summer and the strangers for whom it and the toilets functioned. I walked around the end of the building and emptied myself there, huddling close to a stone chimney to escape the attention of passing cars and the southeasterly wind.
Across the strait the rain was blackening the stone on the carved flank of the cape where they had gouged out enough rock for the crossing forty years before. The mauve strait waters flashed silver highlights in the wind. The air was sharp with the smell of sulphur and a salt fish tang. Great plumes of steam fleeing before the chill wind slanted over the pulp mill that has transformed the place.
At the base of the cape there is now a large pier, and on that day a huge Canada Steamship Lines bulk carrier was tied up there, loading stone. I’m told the rock from the cape makes excellent pavement, that people haul the stone from the cape away for roads in distant places. I once believed it would make the road that would bring all those places here. Or pave the way for me to leave forever.
1975. november 9. left miami about 3 on taca flight 801. one stop, at san pedro sula. lush countryside, mountains, plantations green as golf courses. banana groves with gushing irrigation pipes and smoke from small fires rising … they call it the third world. but it is like a garden. and it smells like home. smoke and decay. almost familiar.
A sudden gust of wind dashed my face with a cold, salty spray. I turned toward the car. The causeway forks in three directions at the top: town to the right, Creignish a hard left, and, a few miles up the middle, a non-place called the Long Stretch, where I grew up. A country road, basically. The old home is still there. It is my only connection, apart from memory.
the only connection: there is a neighbour, John Gillis, with whom I share a troubled history. The fact that he was briefly married to my sister is only part of it.
My sister’s name is Effie and she’s all I have by way of family. Effie and her daughter, whose name is Cassandra and who has, in the blur of time, evolved into a young woman. I don’t think I’d recognize her anymore. They live in Toronto.
At the first clear view of Creignish I stopped and studied the stern old church in the distance, with its modest dome and crucifix grimly overlooking the flashing bay and the distant mainland. You’d hardly notice Creignish before you’d passed it. Some houses strung along the lap of a low mountain with an old church and glebe about halfway up its rocky flank. The parish is called Stella Maris. Star of the Sea.
The eye is drawn to the broad expanse of St. Georges Bay, which sprawls before you, narrowing as it approaches the Canso Strait to the south, reaching toward invisible Prince Edward Island to the northwest. The dark outlines of Antigonish County define the mainland shore.
means “rock.” It also means Peter. Upon this rock, said Jesus, I will build my church. And Peter’s church stood there, rocklike, on the stony banks of Creignish, a visible symbol of authority and permanence, like the Mother Church herself. Impervious to death and time and the winds of history.
I realized I’d parked at the end of someone’s driveway. On a low knoll at the top of the lane there was an old house that had grown shabby since the last time I noticed it, many years before. I struggled to remember a name, something MacIsaac. And I realized that I once knew most of the people around here. Now they and I are strangers, set apart by the sacrament that I embraced in 1968.
The old glebe house stood to the right of the church, at the end of a steep driveway. A tidy cemetery on the left wrapped around a hill with a large crucifix on its crown. The porch door was sticky and I had to use my shoulder to force it open. Inside there was a damp, familiar smell of decay and turpentine. The scent of history. The odours of my childhood. The Third World reek. Woodsmoke and kerosene. DDT. Boiled tea and old clothing. Rot.
The door to the kitchen was unlocked and it swung wide to reveal a sterile interior. White walls. A tile floor of alternating white and black squares. A silver Saviour hung on a black cross above a doorway to the interior of the house. A pantry door, nibbled at the corners by mice. An unturned calendar, January 1991. More than three years old. I tore it down.
I stood still there in the chilly kitchen for what seemed like a long time, trying to warm the moment by thinking of the place as home, but there was no comfort in the memory. I felt the presence of all the solitary men who stood like this before my time, staring into a lonely future. Probably kneeling to acknowledge acceptance of their fate.
Jesus. I didn’t ask for this, but help me make the most of it.
I sought the worn wooden prayer beads in my jacket pocket.
tegucigalpa’s airport is dingy, full of sullen men with guns. weary inspectors deferring to my collar. alfonso was waiting. had a little paper sign with something like my name in heavy ink. FR. MACKASGAL.
I peer into the gloom of what will be my study. The other peril, I tell myself, is silence. I was so accustomed to the sounds of other people’s lives around me at the university. The old priests coughing and shuffling in nearby rooms, awaiting their eternal rewards. Squealing, slamming doors. Students rampaging in and out. Incessant booming stereos. Traffic passing endlessly on West Street. No more of that. Silence now. I must consider this a welcome change. Learn to work with silence. The silence can become a passageway to better places.
Up a creaky stairway. This must be the bishop’s room, I thought as I peered into a large dark space. Every glebe house has a special guest room for the bishop. There was a faint smell of clammy wallpaper. I could see the dim shape of a bed and a dresser with a large water jug and wash basin. I could feel the dampness of disuse. I walked toward a slash of light and pulled back drapes, exposed a window. There were clumps of dead flies between the panes of glass. The sun was beginning to press weakly against the filmy sky. Small fishing boats dotted the choppy grey sea. Inside the room, the anemic light revealed the face of a sallow Jesus on the wall. On another wall, the Blessed Virgin, a hand raised in salutation, a child with a dead man’s face in the crook of her left arm.
I lit a candle on the bedside table, hoping to defeat the smell of loneliness. Opened a sticky drawer. More dead flies.
A smaller bedroom along the hall. Bathroom. A second large bedroom. Closet door ajar, metal coat hangers entangled. A faded
print on one wall and another crucifix above the naked bed.
Back downstairs, in the study, I found a large safe, pointlessly locked; the combination was taped to the outside of the door. It was full of ledgers. Records of births and baptisms, marriages and deaths. Parish finances. And photographs of old men in black suits and liturgical vestments.
You had no goddamned business spying …
I study a stern, anonymous face above the Roman collar. Pious, slightly arrogant. He is wearing a hat even though he’s obviously indoors. Concealing baldness? A hint of hidden vanity? Was he one of those whose secret weakness undermined the Rock as nothing had before?
Maybe they were classmates, he and Father Roddie. They’d have known each other. Old men, presumed exempted from temptations of the flesh.
I closed the safe.
I don’t belong here.
But this is the priesthood. This is what you’re for.
But that’s not why I’m here.
There was a radio on the desk. I switched it on. The house filled up with mournful country music. I unpacked the few photographs that I’d brought from my rooms at the university. One I’ve carried with me everywhere. There are two men in uniform, one of them my father, and a third in work clothes with a hunting rifle in his hand, and a dead deer draped on the fender of a truck. There’s an inscription on the back:
October ’41. Home from Debert.
Three men, decades younger than I am now, faces still defined by innocence and curiosity, yet to be rewritten by experience. My father’s name was Angus. These were his closest friends, Sandy Gillis, in his army uniform, and Sandy’s brother Jack, holding up the deer’s head, a knowing expression on its lifeless face. Effie gave it to me. It had once belonged to John. He didn’t want it when they finally broke up their marriage. The rifle in Jack’s hand was the one his brother Sandy used in 1963.
That photo, in a way, is my biography: three men who shaped what has become my life, created what became my family. My sister Effie, briefly married to Sandy’s only offspring, John Gillis. And Sextus Gillis, the son of Jack, closer to me than a brother once, smitten briefly, like his cousin, by my sister.
In another photo, Effie is a child, red hair wild and unruly. And there is a more recent, formal portrait, Dr. Effie MacAskill Gillis, or Faye, or
Oighrig nic Ill-Iosa
as she sometimes styles herself now that she’s a scholar. The sharp-tongued history professor, with a rare smile for a stranger’s camera.
And then there is the photograph from Puerto Castilla. Three ordinary people on a holiday. The younger me, tall and leaner of jaw, longer of hair. Jacinta in the middle, shorter, arms outstretched to catch our shoulders, hauling us together. Dark Alfonso on her left, me on the right. We are smiling.
In one of seven boxes filled with books I find my diaries.
1975. nov. 26. harsh dreams and the humidity and crowing roosters drive me out of bed early. dawns are pink and misty here. people emerge like shadows from the darkness with their packages and their children. trinkets, fruit and vegetables to sell, families trudging toward the glow of day. there is an old woman who cooks on a bucketful of burning charcoal. through doorways i see women bending over open hearths and the tortillas. everybody friendly to the new priest. and dogs barking at the roosters. the old woman at the smouldering bucket calls me padre pelirrojo.
I closed the journal, then placed it and the others on top of an empty bookcase. There were a dozen journals. Careful, coded records of my years of ministry. The record of my sordid service for our Holy and Eternal Mother, a source of self-recrimination but also of security. At the university I’d leave them prominently displayed. Reminders of who I am and whom I work for. At the university, my visitors would eye them nervously. They’d mean nothing here, except to me.