I arranged the journals carefully by year. Then I set the photographs on the mantel above a blocked fireplace. They are as alien as I am, I told myself. Strangers here. Strangers from the dead past. Chilled, I found a thermostat, turned the dial and heard the distant rumble of a furnace.
In the house where I grew up, I have another photograph from just before that first assignment, in Honduras. I haven’t set eyes on it in years, though I remember it in detail—the dreamy expression, the piety of innocence. One day it suddenly became too much. A reminder of all the contradictions. I shoved it in a drawer. I couldn’t find it now even if I wanted to.
My sister Effie was the only one to notice it was gone. It was during one of her rare visits home.
“What have you done with that lovely picture, your ordination portrait?”
“I put it somewhere,” I said.
“I still have mine,” she said. “It’s in my office in Toronto. Everybody comments.”
It was the innocence that bothered me, I think. Maturity has stripped away my palliative optimism.
they call me pelirrojo. padre pelirrojo. father red, because of my red hair. they should be careful calling anybody red around this place, alfonso says. back home in salvador they called me red. which is why i’m here. jacinta seems concerned. she has unusual green eyes.
The day’s weak light was failing fast as night approached. I might feel warmer in the church, I thought.
It was dim there and a kind of peace fell over me. Shadows absorbed boundaries, enlarging the possible, making the hollow, vaulted places more vast than I remembered. Surfaces and corners softened. Shadows from a solitary vigil light flickered. I noticed I was not alone. Among the wavering shadows a dark, motionless form, someone crouched in prayer before the banks of votive candles to the right of the altar. I stayed in the back. The prim kerchief told me it was a woman. I sat still, touched by her devotion.
There used to be a rail between the people and the altar. A little fence. Women were not allowed inside the fence except to change the linen, scrub the floors. I remember women with their hair covered, working silently, efficiently, to minimize their time in the forbidden spaces. And I remember Sundays, people kneeling outside the sanctuary, elbows on the starched cloth of the altar rail, faces buried in dry, knobby hands. People lined up to receive the Blessed Sacrament, eyes intense with devotion and hope. Cape Breton, Honduras—the features blur in my memory. People shaped by hardship and faith into a common character.
There was a flare of light at the front. The dear woman was lighting candles. Thanksgiving? Anxiety? Light now flickered in a red receptacle, casting rosy shadows. The glow of faith and hope.
A shadow rose. I heard the clink of a coin. Another light flared briefly. Another candle. Another movement as she made the sign of the cross.
She must be old, I thought. Lighting candles, praying for some small reprieve.
The church creaked as a cold wind rose outside. A suffocating silence drifted down from dark recesses in the hidden ceiling as the cold currents of air wafted over me. The woman hurried by, head down, arms wrapped across her chest as if cradling a child. She didn’t see me. The glass front door whispered shut behind her.
Back in the glebe, I found a loaf of fresh homemade bread and a bag of tea biscuits on the kitchen table. And a note.
“If we’d known you were coming, we’d have baked a cake …”
They’d drawn little music notes around the words. I vaguely recalled an old song. Ethel Merman singing “how’dya do, how’dya do, how’dya doooo.”
“This loaf of bread will have to doooo.”
It was signed Bob O.
Bobby O’Brian showed up later to apologize in person for the lack of preparation, the shabby glebe. The women were beside themselves, he said. New priest coming and the beds not even made. I assured him everything was fine. He said that he’d been president of the parish council, but since there hadn’t been a resident priest for a couple of years the council had lapsed. Just in suspension, though. A lack of manpower. But ready to go again now that I’d arrived. Just say the word. His wife made the bread by way of contrition for the state of the glebe house. One of the priorities of the place was a new house for the priest.
I told him again, the place was fine.
“Did you try it yet? The bread?”
“Yes,” I lied. “It’s fabulous.”
“I’ll tell the wife. She makes the best bread in the county.”
Bobby was middle-aged, prematurely balding and on the heavy side. It was great to have a priest again, he declared. To see a light in the window of the old place.
“Kind of hard to take, not having a priest. We were sure they were going to shut us down for good, after so many years. Would you believe we were the only church in the area once, years and years ago? St. James we were back then.”
I nodded and smiled and said I knew that.
He said, “Of course you do. I’m forgetting, you grew up in this neck of the woods. I did a little homework. Back of Port Hastings, you grew up. Out the Long Stretch.”
“Not too much homework, I hope.”
I forced myself to smile again.
“The wrath to come …”
Those bleak words of absolution say it all, now that I think of it. The grim warning in the burial prayers. I think it was at a funeral in 1970 that the innocence first began to wash away under a pounding rain. I remember a stormy day, the pungent incense fumes blowing back in my face, censer clinking on its chains, rivulets of water creeping out around the edges of the artificial turf that hides the muddy evidence of our mortality.
Poor Jack Gillis. His death was as unremarkable as his life. He was visiting my father late one night and dropped dead.
His only son was glassy-eyed. “What the fuck was that all about?” Sextus said, gesturing angrily toward the casket. “Is that it?”
Jack’s sudden departure had caught him off guard. Jack was relatively young. There was so much left unsaid, undone; death should have meaning, not this feeling of betrayal, of something interrupted. Sextus repeated all the common phrases of confusion after unexpected loss, but later, calmed by liquor, he became more analytical. He spoke of how his father, travelling for work, was mostly absent from his life; how their occasional coexistence always suffered from anticipated separation. It was how most people grew up here, in this godforsaken place, scrabbling for survival.
“You don’t have to explain,” I assured him.
In the end he admitted his real anxiety: a father’s death reveals the awful tragedy of deferred conciliation. “I’m not talking about reconciliation,” he said fiercely. “I’m talking about the basics. I’m talking about what you, yourself, know all too well.”
I just listened. It’s my job, I told myself. I nodded, gripped his shoulder reassuringly. “You’ll be okay.” This I knew for sure.
Sextus bounced back quickly, as he has always done. It’s never long before he finds some sleazy analgesic. That was how I saw it then. How easily our lowest needs take over and redirect the heart away from grief. I see them still, Sextus on one side of Jack’s open grave, my sister and her husband John, standing close but somehow disconnected, on the other side, John’s face a mask of pain. He loved his uncle Jack. Or maybe he could already feel the other bond, could see the future coming.
I hear the awful words again: “I am seized with fear and trembling, until the trial shall be at hand, the wrath to come.”
“That day, a day of wrath, of wasting, and of misery, a great day, and exceeding bitter. When Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.”
My priestly words linger in the flap of wind. I observe my sister’s stealthy glance, the ghostly smile.
“I am desperately unhappy,” she has told me.
“I blessed your marriage,” I’d replied. “You will find the strength. You and John, together.”
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.” And in the pouring rain, the mourners murmured the response: “And let perpetual light shine upon him.”
Perhaps John was still unconscious of the mute transaction happening between his cousin and his wife. Truthfully, I see it only now, knowing what unfolded afterwards, the monstrous betrayal she later justified by calling it compassion.
“Sextus needed me,” she said. “My husband didn’t.”
After Mass on my first Sunday, I had lunch in the hall with the Catholic Women’s League. Some of them I recognized from high school, self-conscious girls transformed by time into plump and pious matrons. I wondered if they remembered me as I remembered them. They wanted to know if I’d support them in a campaign to revive the daily rosary in the home. Why not, I thought. We need it now more than ever before, they said, and I nodded.
We used to say the rosary for peace, I said. Maybe we could focus on the Balkans or the Middle East. The Holy Land especially. They seemed uncomfortable with that, and proposed the integrity of the family and the sanctity of life instead. We should pray for strength against the forces that are bent on destroying traditional structures in the home. And life itself. That’s where all the problems start. Crime and wars included.
More tradition, more religion, more tribalism—just the cure for Yugoslavia, I thought.
“You’ll have to help me here,” I sighed, raising helpless hands. “I don’t have much experience in a parish.”
“Oh, we’ll look after you,” said one, vaguely flirtatious.
The others laughed like the girls they used to be.
I realized the flirt looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember a name. Then she was serious again.
“The family that prays together, stays together. We have to get back to that idea, and then all the other problems will take care of themselves.”
She said her name was Pat. Some distant image stirred. We were somewhere unremembered, and she and Sextus were together. A night-blue sky over the black glitter of the sea. I struggled to remember, eventually gave up and promised to mention the rosary from the altar sometime soon.
On their way out, I overheard their whispering, talking about me.
“Well, he’s different,” said one.
The others murmured in assent.
Sextus showed up unannounced on a Sunday afternoon in May. He said he was home from Toronto for an extended visit. I had trouble hiding my surprise and I suspected there was something wrong because he hugged me. Walked straight in, arms wide, and grabbed me.
“You look fabulous,” he declared. “Maybe there’s something to this celibacy racket after all. I should try it.” He was fidgety, couldn’t stop moving, checking out the meagre contents of my dreary room. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … It’s been at least ten years since my last visit …”
He was smiling then, one knee slightly bent, head slightly tilted. He said it was amazing how nothing seems to have changed in the old ’hood. He was staying out at the old Gillis place, the Long Stretch. Temporarily.
“The old place.”
“Yep,” he said. “Me and John, two old
making tea for one another.”
I guess my face revealed my skepticism.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Effie said I should check the place for firearms before venturing in. But John and I put all that crap behind us long ago.”
Eventually he said that he’d had a small health scare. “Some medical issues,” was how he put it. He was standing in front of my bookcase and plucked a volume.
I ventured: “So it’s been ten years since you’ve been home?”
“More like eleven,” he said absently. “Macquarrie, eh? Funny name for an existentialist. I thought they were all French or German.” He sat, flipped open the cover. “Nineteen seventy-seven. That was just after you got back from … that place. Who was RM?”
“Old priest. Former philosophy prof.”
“One of my interests,” I said.
“Mine too, lately.”
“I didn’t realize.”
He sighed. “One day a Paki doctor sticks his finger up your ass and you just know by his face. This is bad, speaking existentially.”
There was a long silence.
“So that was the health scare,” I said, to break it.
“I’m okay. It was a false alarm.”
“I did,” he said. “It’s shocking, just how quick the faith comes back.”
Before he left, he stood for a while before the mantel, studying the photo of my sister.
“Just look at her.”
I couldn’t read the tone.
“Believe it or not, she was a major help when I was … pretty down there, for a while.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said.