A 1917 gramophone (phonograph) recording of ‘The Battle Cry Of Freedom’ also known as ‘Rally ‘Round The Flag,’ sung by Charles Harrison. Written in 1862 by the American songwriter, George Frederick Root.
From Virtue’s blissful paths away
The double-tongued are sure to stray;
Good is a forth-right journey still,
And mazy paths but lead to ill.
—by Charles Brockden Brown (1798). Wieland, T. & J. Swords, H. Caritat, New York.
For there be divers sorts of death — some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey — which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigour for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.
Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with Heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and sombrecoloured rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.
The day, I thought, must be far advanced, though the sun was invisible; and although sensible that the air was raw and chill my consciousness of that fact was rather mental than physical — I had no feeling of discomfort. Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of low, lead-coloured clouds hung like a visible curse. In all this there was a menace and a portent — a hint of evil, an intimation of doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the dead trees and the grey grass bent to whisper its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke the awful repose of that dismal place.
I observed in the herbage a number of weatherworn stones, evidently shaped with tools. They were broken, covered with moss and half sunken in the earth. Some lay prostrate, some leaned at various angles, none was vertical. They were obviously headstones of graves, though the graves themselves no longer existed as either mounds or depressions; the years had levelled all. Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion. So old seemed these relics, these vestiges of vanity and memorials of affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained — so neglected, deserted, forgotten the place, that I could not help thinking myself the discoverer of the burial-ground of a prehistoric race of men whose very name was long extinct.
Filled with these reflections, I was for some time heedless of the sequence of my own experiences, but soon I thought, ‘How came I hither?’ A moment’s reflection seemed to make this all clear and explain at the same time, though in a disquieting way, the singular character with which my fancy had invested all that I saw or heard. I was ill. I remembered now that I had been prostrated by a sudden fever, and that my family had told me that in my periods of delirium I had constantly cried out for liberty and air, and had been held in bed to prevent my escape out-of-doors. Now I had eluded the vigilance of my attendants and had wandered hither to — to where? I could not conjecture. Clearly I was at a considerable distance from the city where I dwelt — the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.
No signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising smoke, no watch-dog’s bark, no lowing of cattle, no shouts of children at play-nothing but that dismal burial-place, with its air of mystery and dread, due to my own disordered brain. Was I not becoming again delirious, there beyond human aid? Was it not indeed all an illusion of my madness? I called aloud the names of my wives and sons, reached out my hands in search of theirs, even as I walked among the crumbling stones and in the withered grass.
A noise behind me caused me to turn about. A wild animal — a lynx — was approaching. The thought came to me: if I break down here in the desert — if the fever return and I fail, this beast will be at my throat. I sprang toward it, shouting. It trotted tranquilly by within a hand’s-breadth of me and disappeared behind a rock.
A moment later a man’s head appeared to rise out of the ground a short distance away. He was ascending the farther slope of a low hill whose crest was hardly to be distinguished from the general level. His whole figure soon came into view against the background of grey cloud. He was half naked, half clad in skins. His hair was unkempt, his beard long and ragged. In one hand he carried a bow and arrow; the other held a blazing torch with a long trail of black smoke. He walked slowly and with caution, as if he feared falling into some open grave concealed by the tall grass. This strange apparition surprised but did not alarm, and taking such a course as to intercept him I met him almost face to face, accosting him with the familiar salutation, ‘God keep you.’
He gave no heed, nor did he arrest his pace.
‘Good stranger,’ I continued, ‘I am ill and lost. Direct me, I beseech you, to Carcosa.’
The man broke into a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue, passing on and away.
An owl on the branch of a decayed tree hooted dismally and was answered by another in the distance. Looking upward, I saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this there was a hint of night — the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl. Yet I saw — I saw even the stars in absence of the darkness. I saw, but was apparently not seen nor heard. Under what awful spell did I exist?
I seated myself at the root of a great tree, seriously to consider what it were best to do. That I was mad I could no longer doubt, yet recognized a ground of doubt in the conviction. Of fever I had no trace. I had, withal, a sense of exhilaration and vigour altogether unknown to me — a feeling of mental and physical exaltation. My senses seemed all alert; I could feel the air as a ponderous substance; I could hear the silence.
A great root of the giant tree against whose trunk I leaned as I sat held enclosed in its grasp a slab of stone, a part of which protruded into a recess formed by another root. The stone was thus partly protected from the weather, though greatly decomposed. Its edges were worn round, its corners eaten away, its surface deeply furrowed and scaled. Glittering particles of mica were visible in the earth about it-vestiges of its decomposition. This stone had apparently marked the grave out of which the tree had sprung ages ago. The tree’s exacting roots had robbed the grave and made the stone a prisoner.
A sudden wind pushed some dry leaves and twigs from the uppermost face of the stone; I saw the lowrelief letters of an inscription and bent to read it. God in heaven! my name in full! — the date of my birth! — the date of my death!
A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east. I stood between the tree and his broad red disk — no shadow darkened the trunk!
A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. I saw them sitting on their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular mounds and tumuli filling a half of my desert prospect and extending to the horizon. And then I knew that these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.
Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.
—by Ambrose Bierce, first published in the San Francisco Newsletter, December 25, 1886
By Dan Klefstad
The Russians knew they had no chance; we surrounded them. They also knew we’d have no mercy, but they surrendered anyway. They gave up their weapons and helmets, hoping for cigarettes which we no longer had. Were they buying time? Somewhere across the drifting snow, their swine-kin prepared another attack, but we didn’t know when, or how many. So we tried beating the details out, smashing their fingers and noses with rifles. After burning precious calories, we huddled in our so-called “winter outfits” and stamped our feet to get the blood moving. Then we tried to strip their coats which covered neck-to-ankle with thick, coarse wool. I knew very little Russian but it was clear we’d have to shoot them first. That sealed their fate. I ordered my last surviving officer to line them up and empty our German guns into them; the captured ones work better when frozen, and we’d need those for the next assault.
A corporal limps toward me and salutes. “Herr Hauptsturmführer, shall we aim for the head? The coats would be intact then.”
“If you want pig brains on your collar, that’s your business.” I yank the magazine from my pistol and count the remaining ice-covered rounds. “I’ll take the three on the right.”
Up to now, I thought Der Führer might introduce a Super Weapon that would stop the Red Army from entering Germany, but when half our guns failed to perform a simple mass execution, I knew it was over. The war would go on for another fifteen months but this moment in Estonia is where the end began – for Germany and these mongrel fucks who surrendered everything but their coats. At least their weapons worked; my men were thrilled. I, however, counted every one of the eleven bullets they spent.
“Hauptsturmführer Fillenius!” Major Haas motions from a staff-car that must’ve arrived while we were firing. I walk quickly and salute, expecting a reprimand for wasting ammunition.
Haas ignores the bodies. “I’m going to Tallinn to prepare defenses there. Need I remind you of Der Führer’s directive?”
“Stand and fight. No retreat, no surrender.”
His driver, a lieutenant, salutes. “We know you’ll give your all for the Fatherland.”
I ignore him. “Can you send some food, cigarettes, bandages – anything?”
“I’ll assess the situation and let you know.” Haas motions to his driver who shifts into First. “Don’t let us down, Søren.”
His use of my Christian name is another sign that the “thousand-year Reich” will last little more than a decade. I salute once more as he drives toward the final sunset I expect to see. I try to savor it, but someone yells “Deckung!” and I jump into the nearest trench.
I’ve seen men hallucinate before they die, so I’m not surprised by the woman wearing a low-cut peasant-style dress. This moonlit vision is a lovely distraction from the gurgling in my throat and lungs. A sucking chest wound gets priority in any triage, but there’s no one left to plug the holes. Suffocating, I try to relax and enjoy this little film about an underdressed beauty walking toward me through white and crimson snow.
“You don’t look Russian,” I wheeze. “Estonian?”
She gathers the long fabric as she kneels, and I see blue veins in her large white breasts. Long fingernails like shell splinters descend toward me, and I wonder if she’ll gouge my eyes out. I close them as she brushes aside a stray forelock.
“Please.” My eyes reopen. “Just stay with me.”
“What a pity.” She says in English. “You look like an angel.” She fingers a pin on my uniform. “SS Nordland.” Then she frowns and grabs a handful of hair, lifting my face toward hers. “I could have used those prisoners you killed.”
I focus on her accent which is different from that of my language tutor in Copenhagen. “American?”
Her grip tightens. “You wasted them!”
Wasted. What did that mean? This was more than a war. It was a crusade against Slavs and other sub-humans, and Jewish bolshevism – a crusade I joined four years ago to help the Nazis take over my native Denmark. The fact that the Aryans failed means nothing matters anymore – nichts. Nearly defeated, I spend one of my remaining breaths on a question. “What do you want?”
“What do you want, Søren?”
Definitely a dream; even my dog-tags use an initial for my first name. But I consider her words. “Leave the war. Leave this fucking continent.”
Her eyes narrow as if preparing to divulge a secret. “I’m going to America.”
“Take me with you.”
Her fist tightens against my skull, eyes glow red, and lips part revealing two long canines. “You’re a monster,” she hisses. “Only a fellow hunter can go with me.”
“I… Who… What are you?”
Her mouth closes but her glowing eyes remain fixed on mine. Of all the things I expected to see while dying, I never imagined a seductive hellish creature calling me a monster. What does that make her? My frozen lips barely move: “Vampyr?”
She scowls. For a moment, she appears uncertain about what to do. Finally: “You’re useless now, nearly bloodless, but I can change you.” Her face is so close, our noses almost touch. “First, I’m going to give you something I never had: a choice.”
“Make me one of you.”
“You haven’t heard the terms.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“If I save you, the sun will be your mortal enemy. And your thirst will never end.”
“Please… ” I cough a final time as my lungs collapse.
Both her hands support my neck as she moves behind me. Then she rests my head in her lap and holds her right hand above my face. A nail slices her wrist and my head instinctively turns as blood rains down.
“Open.” Her fingers squeeze my jaw. The drops cover my face as I struggle for my last breath.
When I awake, I hear a heart beating and know immediately who it belongs to. I sit up and hear his panicked breathing, but pause to take in the surroundings of a command bunker I visited once, now abandoned. Fiona relaxes in the Field Marshal’s former wing-chair, sipping from a glass of red liquid that I already know – I can smell it. And I want it.
“You can relax.” Fiona swallows. “It’s safe here.”
“Safe for whom?” He yells from across the room. “Hauptsturmführer Fillenius! Untie me and arrest this woman!”
“Sturmbannführer Haas,” I rise, noting the major’s civilian clothes. “Where did you go after you left our position?”
“To Tallinn – like I told you!”
“He’s lying.” Fiona examines her nails. “I found him at the Loksa Shipyard, arranging passage to neutral territory. He and his lieutenant – who’s delicious, by the way – had Swedish passports.”
I glare at him, sitting in a wooden chair, arms and legs bound. “Stand and fight, you said.” Then I see the passports on a nearby table, plus a dozen gold coins. “My men were killed – all of them – covering your rear.”
“Oh, I think Lieutenant Baumann covered his rear just fine, wouldn’t you say Major?” Fiona smiles as she takes another sip.
“Søren, listen.” Haas fixes his eyes on me. “She kidnapped us in Tallinn, planted that stuff on us, and killed Fritzi.”
“Don’t call me ‘Søren’ – I do not consort with cowards!”
Haas’s face wrinkles with disgust as he looks at Fiona. “Then, like an animal, she bit his neck and drank his blood.”
I inhale deeply, suddenly aware that my teeth are longer. Haas’s skin reveals a spider web of throbbing vessels, but I know which one to attack first. I glance at Fiona. “Can I take him now?”
Fiona looks amused as she leans back in the Field Marshal’s chair. “Permission granted, Hauptsturmführer.”
The Stockholm Palace looks stunning at night, yellow lights reflecting off the sandstone exterior. But the fact that a King lives there – plus the surrounding architecture, music, and fashions – reminds me that we’re still in Europe. I look at Fiona’s hands which rest on the wrought iron balcony, and place my right on her left. “I hear the war will be over soon.”
“It should be safe to travel, no?”
“It’s never safe.” She looks at me. “The first leg, to England, is a small risk. We could take two or three passengers, but we’d have to share them. The second leg, though…” She looks at the night sky. “That would be seven or eight – again, shared – so we’d still be starving. If we’re alive when we get to New York, the police will know something’s wrong and board the ship. All they need is a little luck and they’ll find our trunk.”
“Why not have separate trunks?”
“That doubles the chances they’ll find one. If they discover you or me, they’ll keep looking.”
“Remind me. Why are we doing this?”
She points west. “Because that’s where we’ll get dinner every night.” She waves toward the city. “They just had two devastating wars, and God knows if the Russians are finished marching. There aren’t enough people to hide behind while we make the others disappear.”
I gaze at the rising moon and imagine how it looks from New York, Boston, or Chicago. Then I lift my glass. “To America. May we thrive among her teeming multitudes.”
“To whoever controls the universe,” Fiona raises hers. “May she still need us enough to grant safe passage.”
The interest in Charles Brockden Brown and his works arises largely from his ranking position among American Prose Writers. Hence, it is not expected that an estimate, somewhat extended and somewhat critical, of his writings is likely to become popular. No other than this, save very brief sketches of Brown and of what he has done, is known to the writer. It may be, then, that the student of American literature will find in this book, written five years ago, something suggestive, perhaps something usually called original.
—Martin S. Vilas, 1904; introduction to Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature.
§.00 Martin Samuel Vilas’ Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature (Burlington, VT., Free Press Association, 1904) is one of the better overviews of the work of the American gothique novelist Charles Brockden Brown I have ever come across. Its value lays chiefly in Vilas’ clear and forthright approach to literary criticism (“It has been said,—and rightly I think,—that to study literature correctly and determine the value of the work of each author, he should be studied with reference to himself alone first, next with reference to his place in the history of the literature,” Vilas, p. 66) despite his clear appreciation for Brown as a writer of considerable ability (“Brown is not lacking in invention or originality” p. 56), and praise for Wieland and Ormond, Vilas never allows his appreciation to deteriorate into feeble sentimentalism and excuse-making in relation to Brown’s lesser works (ie. “Brown had been trained a Quaker, but that in no sense excuses him for his inaccurate uses of ‘thee,’ ‘thou,’ and ‘thine'” p. 56).
§.01 As a consequence of Vilas approach (and good writing), the work retains an amusing character, while never compromising swiftness or comprehensiveness to entertainment, which is surprising for a corpus retrospective (cast your mind to any contemporary volume on literary history). The text examines Brown’s novels, Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800), Edgar Huntly (1799), Clara Howard (1801), and Jane Talbot (1801), in addition to Brown’s social background, philosophic and political influences, and his influence on other writers, all in the space of only 80 pages.
§.02 However, Vilas’ criticism, deft though it is, contains some flaws, as demonstrated in his analysis of Brown’s treatment of wild nature, “He could not describe a cavern, a precipice or a deep ravine without letting his imagination lead him into something that is gruesome. Thus nature becomes not an emblem of the bright and beautiful, but the representation of an infinite and awful power which hangs over and around all things” (p. 58). This characterization is accurate, but is held to be a failing in Brown’s works by Vilas, who notes that his contention with this “gruesome” portrayal of wilderness, is theological in origin. He writes, “[Brown’s descriptions of nature] never go back with a glad and cheerful heart to say,—I am of nature and of God. I exist as a part of it and of Him. If he is great and wonderful, aye, awful at times in his manifestations, I rejoice in it, for it exalts me that see in it an expression of myself. The Almighty is great and powerful, so am I in a small degree as a manifestation in one form of Him.” Vilas then writes, “… these optimistic feelings were not akin to the soul of Brown. His philosophy was the philosophy of darkness and distortion.” (p. 59) At the first, it should be noted that even if it were true that Brown’s philosophy was one of “darkness and distortion” this, in no way detracts (indeed, would enhance) the powers of his prose. I consider this criticism to be irrelevant in relation to Brown’s prose, precisely because it is a problem only in contradistinction to Vilas’ personal philosophy (of providential-anthropocentric unity), which, itself, is far less realistic, than Brown’s more cautious and skeptical view of nature’s savage increase (contemplate Leishmaniasis, or the black plague, cancer, the flesh-feasting botfly, the rivers of blood spilt by the man-eating tigers of India, or the thousands upon thousands who die to mosquitoes annually). That Brown long-suffered with health complications (chiefly consumption) was likely a factor which effected his outlook on ‘nature,’ and one which would predispose him towards a view of ‘the natural’ which was less than ideal (much to Vilas’ evident chagrin), in spite of his gentle yet sedulous religiosity.
§.03 Despite the reservations and harsh criticisms expressed in his text, Vilas’ view of Brown, both as a novelist and American, is ultimately favorable, as he concludes, “Within the limits of his strength, he did a great work. He realized his duty to his country and to civilization to contribute as much as within him lay and he never faltered though beset constantly by weariness and disease. His patience, his conscientiousness and his unfaltering devotion to the light that came to him led him ever on with a resolute heart and, even when disease was constantly preying upon him, his smile of affection always covered the deep-seated anguish. His pure and upright life was reflected in his writings, and if he could not write brilliant facts so that they would endure, all things of him exhibited the greatest of all truths that the highest virtue consists in ‘the perfection of one’s self and the happiness of others.’ It was then a courageous thing to be an American writer and especially to attempt to be the first American novelist, but Brown constantly displayed that courage. Had he not deserved to be first, the position would not have been accorded him. If he did not set the pace, he started the movement. It is with very great respect and considerable admiration that I have studied this ‘brief but blazing star’ that during his short and sickly life worked with such unfailing earnestness along lines that to him seemed best and highest.”
Sources (alphabetically, by author)
- Arkaprabha92. (2015) The Realm of Shadows & Chimera: Gothicism in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland or, The Transformation. JUSAS Online.
- Cheryl Spinner. (2010) Martin S. Vilas, Early 20th Cent. CBB Scholar. Electrically Speaking (Cheryl Spinner’s Research Blog).
- Martin S. Vilas. (1904) Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature. Free Press Association.
- Memoir of Charles Brockden Brown (preface to Cornell University’s edition of Wieland).
- Rob Velella. (2010) Birth of Charles Brockden Brown. The American Literary Blog.
Written by Anne Bradstreet¹—the ‘Empress Consort of Massachusetts’²—July 10th, 1666 after the burning of her house. Copied from The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1995).
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle e’er shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom‘s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shalt thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mould’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Frameed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It‘s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There‘s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
¹Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-72) was a prominent North American poet and scholar. She wrote extensively and was widely read in both America and England. Her writing is exemplary of Puritan plain style and was influenced by the Huguenot courtier-poet, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas. A memorial marker stands in her honor at Old North Parish Burial Ground, North Andover, Massachusetts.
²Rosemary M. Langlin. (1970) Anne Bradstreet: Poet in search of a Form. American Literature vol 42, no 1, Duke University Press.
University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
Filed Apr. 7, 1955, Ser. No. 499,867 2 Claims. (C. 176-38)
The design of any power reactor requires that large amounts of heat be removed from the reactor core and the necessity of obtaining good heat transfer conditions often dictates the arrangement of the reactor. From a nuclear standpoint the reactor core is desirably arranged in a geometric pattern so as to have the smallest ratio of core bounding surface to volume in order to minimize neutron escape. Such considerations have caused some of the prior reactor cores to be constructed in the general form of a sphere. Other shapes that have been used are righ circular cylinders having a length to diameter ratio greater than one and polygons having a length greater than its major cross axis.
Almost all of these reactors have been designed for low power output and have utilized solid fuel. Solid fuel or heterogeneous reactors by their construction limitations can not have a high efficiency of neutron liberation, because the fuel cladding material and the coolant heat transfer surfaces interfere with the ecient transfer of neutrons for further ssion. In contrast, homogeneous type reactors, where the issionable material is in solution, have a high neutron efficiency and are more readily adapted to geometries which deviate considerably from the above mentioned sphere.
Mobile reactors have the overriding consideration that they must be relatively small in size to fit into the available space, .while releasing large amounts of heat, i.e., capacity to operate at high power densities. In units of this type the removal of heat is a major criteria for determining a design.` Factors aifecting the heat transfer such as uniform removal of heat throughout the core, characteristics of the heat transfer or coolant uid, and structural limitations, are more influential design factors than the nuclear requirements.
The nuclear reactor of my invention is particularly charv acterized by the construction of the reactor core or fuel chamber in the shape of a right circular cylinder having an axial length to diameter ratio of less than 0.75, and with the circular end portions of the cylinder serving as tube sheets for a multiplicity of small diameter, longitudinally disposed, spaced cooling tubes which pass through the core or fuel chamber. Within the cylinder and around the tubes there is a water solution of uranium sulphate or the like.
Another feature of my invention is the provision of inlet and outlet chambers on the outer side of each tube sheet which when filled with water act as reflectors.
A further feature of my invention is that the water which is used for a reector, can be the reactor coolant fluid and may be either boiled to generate steam or may simply be heated for a further heat transfer step in an auxiliary heat exchanger where the coolant fluid transfers heat to a vaporizable fluid for vapor generation.
A still further feature of my invention is the provision of a catalytic recombiner in which the dissociated water vapor from the fuel solution is externally recombined and then condensed by the vapor generator feed water in indirect heat exchange so as to constitute in effect a continuously refluxing condenser.
Another feature of my invention is in the use of the 3,127,3Zl Patented Mar. 31, 1964 ice 2 driving potential of the dissociated water vapor, vapor, and gaseous fission products which pass 0E from the liquid fuel solution, to drive a turbine which in turn drives a pump for the circulation of the fuel solution within the fuel chamber, thus increasing the heat transfer effectiveness of the fuel solution.
A further feature is in the provision of means for superheating the power plant working uid by passing the vapor generated in cooling relation with the primary shield heated by the gamma radiations of the reactor. This arrangement gives the steam a measure of superheat, thus guaranteeing that the steam is dry and also reducing the external heat loss of the primary shield.
The various features of novelty which characterize the invention are pointed out with particularity in the claimsv annexed to and forming a part of this specification. For a better understanding of the invention, its operating advantages and specific objects attained by its use, reference should be had to the accompanying drawings and descriptive matter in which I have illustrated and described a preferred embodiment of the invention.
Of the drawings:
FIG. l is a sectional elevation through a nuclear reactor embodying the invention;
FIG. 2 is a transverse section taken on the line 2-2 of FIG. 1;
FIG. 3 is an isometric drawing of the exterior of the reactor with the shell removed; and
FIG. 4 is a view of the reactor as mounted in a locomotive.
The nuclear reactor illustrated utilizes a homogeneous solution of uranium sulphate in light water, with the reactor being cooled by heating light water under forced circulation at a vaporizing temperature. The reactor has a fuel chamber 10 formed by a cylindrical pressure wall 12, a pair of spaced circular tube sheets 14 and 16 arranged to close the ends thereof, and a multiplicity of small diameter coolant tubes 18 extending between and opening through said tube sheets. Disposed at opposite ends of the cylindrically shaped fuel chamber are a cylindrically shaped fuel chamber are a cylindrical coolant inlet chamber 20 and a cylindrical coolant outlet chamber 22. Directly above the fuel chamber 10 and in communication with it, is a catalytic recombiner chamber 24.
Adjacent the recombiner chamber 24 is a separate external steam separator 26 which has a riser 28 in communication with the outlet chamber 22, a downcorner Sil connected to the coolant inlet chamber itl, and a vapor outlet line 32. Subjacent the cylindrical fuel chamber is a coolant pump 34 arranged to force-circulate the coolant fluid from the outlet chamber 22 via the suction line 3d to the coolant inlet chamber Ztl via line 3S. Disposed adjacent to but spaced from the outer sides of inlet and outlet chambers are two parallel steam superheater sections 4@ and 42, each being formed in a sinuous tube bank in thermal contact with a vertical end wall 44 of the primary shielding structure 45, formed of steel, e.g., 8 thick. The shielding 45′ is completed by a U-shaped side wall 47 and and roof 49 connected to the end walls 44, and the entire reactor is disposed within the shielding.
Within the fuel chamber lil are a pair 0f spaced vertically arranged fuel circulation bafiies 46 which assist in guiding the circulation of the liquid fuel. Arranged to take suction from the liquid fuel contained between the baffles 46 is a fuel circulating pump dit. rhis pump is driven by a turbine 50 which receives its driving energy from the dissociated water vapor, vapor, and ssion gases which rise off of the liquid fuel surface indicated at 52 and pass into the recombiner chamber 24. Immediately upon entering the chamber 24 the dissociated water vapor first passes through a body of catalyst 51 which may be activated platinum, where the hydrogen and oxygen is recombined in an exothermic process. The released heat superheats the ssion gases and water Vapor. The condensible vapor is then partly condensed by a condenser coil 53 in the upper end of the chamber 24. The cooling fluid for the condenser coil is the vapor generator feed water which enters the recombiner chamber by the line 55 and is discharged by the line 54 into the reactor inlet coolant chamber 20. The condensed water is carried out of the recombiner through the line S6 and returned to the fuel chamber l to maintain the liquid fuel level therein. Disposed within the fuel chamber are emergency cooling heat transfer tubes 58 having their opposite ends connected to inlet and outlet headers 60 and 62. On the occurrence of a predetermined condition, an emergency cooling fluid can be forced through the cooling loop 58 from an external source (not shown) in order to remove the reactor decay heat.
The reactor is controlled to maintain a predetermined fuel temperature, thus changes in this temperature would change the power output. Control rods 64 are adapted to be reciprocably moved according to the proper control signal by any of the presently known control systems for reactors.
In the operation of this reactor control rods 64 are moved until the reactor goes critical. The reactor coolant circulating pump 34 is started so that the light water coolant is circulated from the inlet chamber 20 through the tubes llS into the outlet chamber 22 and then back to the pump, until a steaming condition is reached. Then a control valve (not shown) on the outlet 43 of the superheater 40, 42 would be opened. The steam which is generated as it passes through the reactor coolant tubes 18 passes up the steam riser tube 28 into the steam and Water separator 26. The separated water passes down the downcomer into the inlet chamber 20 and the separated steam passing into the superheater sections 40 and 42. As the steam passes through the superheater, which is in contact with the primary shielding 44, the steam picks up a small degree of superheat in cooling the shield end walls 44, which in turn receive heat from the gamma radiations from the reactor. Thus there is generated steam for the prime mover in a homogeneous type boiling reactor.
In FIG. 4 there is shown a speciiic application of my mobile reactor as used as a power source for a railway locomotive. The reactor, which is Within the primary shield 45, is centrally located within a large shielding chamber formed by the secondary shield 66. The reactor is arranged therein with the fuel chamber major axis in a plane coincidental with the longitudinal axis of the locomotive underframe 68, thus providing the maximum shielding distance between the primary shield 45 andthe secondary shield 66. The reactor and the primary shield are supported on the pedestals 70 which in turn rest on the secondary shield 66. The secondary shield, also being of 8 thick steel, constitutes a center panel of a heavy duty bridge truss 72 which allows the weight of the reactor to be transmitted to and carried by the traction assembly 74. The secondary shield is also arranged to utilize to a maximum extent the allowable width of the railway car underframe, the outer sides of the shield being in substantial vertical alignment with the side edges of the underframe. In one such case, the outer dimensions of the secondary shield were 10 feet wide, feet long and l5 feet high. The space between the inner primary shield and the outer secondary shield is filled with a shielding material, which is approximately one-half steel and one-half hydrogenous material of about unit density, which gives the shield a total weight of approximately 400,000 pounds. Under emergency conditions, such as wrecks, the presence of a shielding material of high viscosity between the inner and the outer shield structures is advantageous in effecting the deceleration of the internal or primary shield 45 within the secondary shield 66. Such a material would be a hydrocarbon which is high in hydrogen content.
The steam from the reactor flows from the superheated steam outlet 43 into a steam turbine ’76 which drives conventional railway electrical generating equipment and which in turn drives the electric traction motors of a well known type on the carriages 74.
By way of example, and not of limitation, one locomotive reactor of the character described was designed with a fuel chamber dimension of 3 feet diameter and 10 inches in length, and containing 10,000 1A; inch tubes. Table I shows the designed operating conditions of the locomotive.
TABLE I Operating Conditions Reactor heat generating (continuous) 30,000 kw. team pressure (saturated) 250 p.s.i. Reflector temp 405 F. Fuel solution temp 460 F. Turbine exhaust pressure 6″ Hg. Steam ow 120,000- lb./hr. Turbine power (continuous) 8,000 I-LP. Cycle efficiency 20%.
The reactor characteristics of the locomotive type is shown in Table II below.
TABLE lII Nuclear Operating Data (a) Homogeneous solution UO2SO4. (b) H/U255 atomic ratio 700. (c) H20/Um weight ratio 27. (d) U235 9.0 Vkg. (e) UO2SO4 weight 13.9 kg. (f) H2O required 243 kg. (g) Assumed densityl of solution 1.0 g./cm.3. (h) Solution circulation rate 500 g.p.m. (i) Reflector circulation rate 2000 gpm. (j) Solution pressure 650 p.s.i.g. (k) Reflector pressure 250 p.s.i.g. (l) Power generated 30,000 kw. (m) Excess reactivity 10%. (n) H2O decomposition rate 32 g./sec. (o) Solution temperature 460 F. (p) Reflector temperature 405 F.
The inlet and outlet chambers 20, 22 by their construction and arrangement are especially adapted to act as a neutron reflector, and by virtue of the described geometric arrangement of the fuel chamber they cover a large portion of the surfaces of the fuel chamber, thus contributing to the neutron conservation of the reactor.
The geometric configuration of the fuel chamber, being a right circular cylinder with a length to diameter ratio of considerably less than 0.75, makes possible the use of short longitudinally disposed cooling tubes so as to allow operation of the reactor at a high power density with the boiling cooling Water having a short flow path, thus holding the volume of steam generated in each tube during its traversing of the fuel chamber to a minimum. This allows the boiling Water to maintain its high heat transfer effectiveness without the large reactivity change which would occur with large amounts of steam in each tube.
The integral turbine and pump arrangement in the fuel chamber of the reactor provides for a forced circulation of the liquid fuel by utilizing the heretofore wasted energy of the dissociated vapor and fission gases as they travel to the catalytic recombiner and results in highly improved heat transfer conditions within the fuel chamber. The condenser part of the recombiner operates as an economizer for heating the feed water and thus increases the efliciency of the working cycle.
While in accordance with the provisions of the statutes I have illustrated and described herein the best form of the invention now known to me, those skilled in the art will understand that changes may be made in the form of the apparatus disclosed without departing from the spirit of the invention covered by the claims, and that certain features of the invention may sometimes be used to advantage without a corresponding use of other features.
1. A radiation shielding arrangement for a high energy nuclear radiation source in a railway vehicle comprising a railcar underframe, said radiation source in the form of a right circular cylinder of a length to diameter ratio of less than one and arranged with its major axis in a plane coincidental with the longitudinal axis of said underframe, a radiation shield vessel enveloping said source and mounted on said underframe with the vertical external sides of said shield being in vertical alignment with the side edges of said underframe, a second fluid-tight radiation shield vessel closely surrounding said source internally of and spaced from said first named shield vessel, a high viscosity uid iilling the space between the shield vessels having the ability to decelerate any movement of said internal vessel, and a hydrogenous material placed in said high viscosity liquid to increase the shielding effect of the liquid.
2. A radiation shielding arrangement for a high energy nuclear radiation source in a railway vehicle comprising a railcar underframe, said radiation source in the form of a right circular cylinder of a length to diameter ratio of less than one and arranged with its major axis in a plane coincidental with the longitudinal axis of said underframe, a radiation shield vessel enveloping said source and mounted on said underframe with the vertical external sides of said shield being in vertical alignment with the side edges of said underframe, a second uid-tight radiation shield vessel closely surrounding said source internally of and spaced from said first named shield vessel, a vapor superheater in heat transfer relationship to the interior surface of said second radiation shield, means for passing vapor through said superheater to remove heat from said shield surface and efect the superheating of said vapor, a high viscosity uid lling the space between the shield vessels having the ability to decelerate any movement of said internal vessel, and a hydrogenous material placed in said high viscosity liquid to increase the shielding eiect of the liquid.
References Cited in the le of this patent UNITED STATES PATENTS Fermi et al May 17, 1955 OTHER REFERENCES ABCD-3287, February 7, 1952, 17 pages, Technical Information Service, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Nucleonics, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 78 and 80. March 1954.
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission AECD-3065, September 19, 1945, pp. 1-28.
Applied Atomic Power by E. S. C. Smith et al., Prentice- Hall, N.Y., 1946, pp. -169.
Business Opportunities in Atomic Energy. Proceedings of a meeting March 15 and 1’6, 1954, Biltmore Hotel, New York, N.Y., pub. by Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., 260 Madison Ave., New York 16, N.Y., May 1954. (Editors of report: Oliver Townsend, Edwin Wiggins, pp. C2 to C15.)
The Effects of Atomic Weapons was a joint project of the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Atomic Energy Commission which sought a “quantitative approach to atomic bomb phenomenology.”
The book was published in 1950.
A PDF of the book is provided below:
Hinterland — “a place of exile”
“We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.” —Albert Camus, The Rebel
The boy felt like a giant, seated on the broad shoulders of his uncle who was well over six feet. He towered over the other people walking down the middle of the street toward the crumbling Catholic church on the corner and could easily make out the anticipation in their eyes. It reminded him of the way people looked when they approached a burning building.
“You aren’t getting dizzy up there, are you, Keaton?” his uncle asked as he looked up at the youngster.
He shook his head.
“You’re sure now?”
They didn’t enter the church but followed the others to the courtyard between the church and the rectory where it was so crowded his uncle had to stand in the flower bed. They were surrounded by people with rosaries and cameras and smiles as bright as some of the daffodils. One person right in front of them held a large cardboard sign on which was written, in thick black letters, “Bless the Virgin.”
“Can you see all right?” his uncle asked, rising a little on his toes.
“I don’t see anything happening.”
“Neither do I.”
“You have to be patient,” an elderly woman next to them whispered in a reproving tone. “Sometimes the crying begins in a matter of minutes, sometimes not for hours.”
Not quite a week and a half ago, while smoking a cigarette in the courtyard, a housekeeper at the rectory noticed what appeared to be drops of rain spilling out of the limestone eyes of the Blessed Virgin statue in the center of the courtyard. But when she realized it wasn’t raining out she nearly fell from the bench she was sitting on and, with a gasp, ran into the rectory to tell the priests what she saw. By the time one of them got out to the courtyard the Virgin’s eyes were dry and he dismissed what she saw as an illusion. The next morning, however, another priest saw the statue weeping and immediately reported it to his superior who came out and also witnessed the crying. Quickly news of the weeping statue spread through the parish and people began to come in droves to witness the phenomenon.
“It’s a miracle,” the elderly woman beside them insisted when she overheard someone in the crowd speculate that the alleged tears might be nothing more than beads of condensation. “That’s what it is.”
The skeptic smiled. “I’m not so sure, lady.”
“When the crying was first witnessed by the housekeeper, it hadn’t rained for almost a week. It can’t be condensation.”
“There has to be an explanation, though.”
“There is, sir. It’s a sign from the Blessed Virgin, a prayer, if you will, for our salvation.”
“Maybe nothing,” she snapped, clutching the chipped rosary beads in her frail hands.
Every day, for the next two weeks, the boy and his uncle visited the church and stared at the statue along with many others. Although they never saw it cry, they believed those who did see the tears and hoped one day they would be fortunate enough to see them too.
As he approached the young woman at the communion rail, Father Keaton Gregor grimaced when he saw that her tongue was pierced with a candy-striped barbell ring. He just did not understand why anyone, especially women, did such vile things to their bodies. Besides her tongue, her nose was pierced, and her left arm, from her wrist to her shoulders, was covered with hideous tattoos. She looked like someone who belonged in a carnival sideshow.
“The Body of Christ,” the priest muttered as he set the communion wafer on her pierced tongue.
Suddenly, a tiny speck of the wafer fell onto the paten held under her chin by the altar boy. She didn’t notice the mishap, though, because her eyes were closed.
The next person at the rail was Mr. Knight, a retired accountant, who always attended the eight o’clock Mass, and beside him were the Manning cousins and their aunt, Mrs. English, who also regularly attended the daily service. The last person to receive communion was a sullen woman with swollen eyes who stared at him so intensely that he found it unsettling and had to look away as he set the wafer on her tongue. He doubted if she was a member of the parish because he was sure, if he had seen her before, he would have remembered.
As always, after the service, after he removed his vestments, he stood at the door to wish those who attended a pleasant day. Knight often took the opportunity to speak with him for a few minutes about some financial matter concerning the church but he had a dental appointment so he left after a brief handshake. The Manning cousins, as usual, each offered him a breath mint. The last person to leave the church was the woman with the swollen eyes. She moved very slowly, as if she were much older than she appeared.
“Good morning, Father.”
He nodded faintly. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“No, Father. I’m not a member of the parish.”
“I’m here because I wanted to have a word with you.”
“And you are?”
“Well, ma’am, how may I be of service to you?”
“It’s about my daughter, Father. She lives with a very abusive man.” Squinting, she paused to collect her thoughts. “And I’ve seen reports on the news about you helping people who are in a bad way.”
“Certainly I’d be happy to speak with your daughter.”
Mrs. Murrey frowned. “I doubt if she’ll talk to you, Father. She won’t talk to anyone who wants to help her. Not since she got involved with this man.”
“If she won’t speak with me, I don’t know how I can be of any assistance.”
“I know what you did for that boy with the heroin addiction.”
Gravely he folded his arms across his slender chest. A lanky figure, well over six feet tall, he looked much as he did when he played on his high school basketball team even though he was close to forty years of age. His hair was just as dark and long and his eyes as intense as a sentinel’s.
“That’s not something that turned out well.”
“But you got him back to his family. You got him away from the bad influences that caused him to take heroin in the first place.”
She was mistaken, but not wanting to discuss that episode, he did not correct her and, instead, watched Knight pull out of the parking lot in his recently acquired Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
“Here, Father,” she said, taking three photographs out of her shoulder bag, “are some pictures of Olivia.”
Expecting to see a family snapshot of the girl or a graduation photograph, he was surprised when the first image he looked at showed a young woman with a split lip and a bruised left cheek. The other two showed her with bruises on her neck and arms.
“The man she lives with did this to her not more than a week ago,” she said, the anger rising in her voice.
“I didn’t think you had any contact with her?”
“I don’t, Father. A friend of hers took these pictures and sent them to me. She’s as worried about Olivia as I am.”
“I’m afraid one day she’ll be beaten so badly she won’t recover. That’s why I’ve come to you, Father. I don’t know where else to turn.”
“You’ve spoken to the police I take it?”
“Many times but they aren’t able to do anything if Olivia won’t cooperate with them. And she won’t because this man, Roland, has such a stranglehold on her.”
Nodding, he handed her back the photographs.
“You’ve helped others in trouble, Father. Won’t you please help me get her away from this monster?”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“Please do, Father. Anything you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.”
Leaning back from his desk, a glass of Merlot in his left hand, Father Gregor stared at the haunting image of the “Bombed Mary” pinned to the wall above his bed. A parishioner, visiting Nagasaki a few years ago, had taken the photograph and given it to him. Her head was badly scarred by the nuclear blast, her eyes melted away so that all that remained were two blackened sockets.
As a youngster, he never found it difficult to pray. Always he was asking the Blessed Mother to grant the most trivial requests, from helping him score a basket in some game to making it snow hard enough so he got a day off from school. However, as he got older, he found it embarrassing to ask for such assistance, believed requests for special favors were made only by young people and weak people. Still, he needed guidance, and as he stared at the hollow eyes of the Blessed Mother, he lowered his chin and asked for her direction in determining if he should help Mrs. Murrey in rescuing her daughter from her abusive companion. Of course, in his heart, he knew he should help the woman but he couldn’t bear a calamity as grave as what happened after he intervened on behalf of Aaron some three months ago.
Father Gregor met Aaron’s father, Paul Gilmore, late one night in a rough area of town known as “The Burrows.” He was walking to his car after helping to serve dinner at a charity house supported by the diocese when Gilmore approached him, waving a long silver flashlight.
“Excuse me, Father,” he said, nearly out of breath, “have you seen a young man tonight with a scruffy brown beard?”
“I just finished serving meals at the Adelman House and there were many diners with beards.”
Nodding, he drew from a pocket of his sheepskin car coat a snapshot of his son, arms crossed, slouched against a chain-link fence underneath a basketball net and handed it to the priest along with the flashlight. “Did you see this young man there tonight?”
Father Gregor shined the light on the photograph. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said after a couple of minutes, “but I don’t know if he was there for dinner or not.”
“No idea at all?”
Slowly he shook his head. “Why are you looking for him, if I may ask?”
“He’s my son, Father. My only child.”
“Oh. I see.”
After taking back the photograph and the flashlight, Gilmore started to turn away, then hesitated and looked at the priest.
“Aaron’s twenty-two, Father. Like a lot of kids, he started experimenting with drugs in school, but unlike most of them he got hooked on heroin and dropped out halfway through his junior year of college and started living on the street. To be sure, he’s been in and out of rehab facilities, but for the past eight months he’s been clear.” He paused, wiping a thread of sweat from his forehead. “I am concerned he’s had another relapse, though, because I haven’t heard from him for almost a week, and, usually, he calls me on the phone every other day to let me know how he’s getting along.”
“Maybe he’s just been busy?”
“I wish but I checked with his landlady, and she hasn’t seen him for several days, either.”
“What makes you think he might be down here?”
“This is one of the places where he used to come to… buy drugs.”
“Well, we better find him then.”
“You don’t have to help me, Father.”
“Oh, but I do,” he said, briefly clamping a hand on Gilmore’s left shoulder.
The two men searched every abandoned building in the desolate area that night, every alley and doorway, but they didn’t see Aaron. They resumed the search the next evening in a driving rainstorm, showing one person after another the photograph of Aaron slouched against a fence. Only a few bothered to take more than a few seconds to look at it, and not one of them admitted they recognized the young man. Their third night in The Burrows Gilmore saw someone who he thought might be his son talking with a tall figure in a doorway, and immediately he called out his name and ran toward him, with Father Gregor half a step behind him. When they got within a few feet of the doorway, they saw that it was Aaron all right and he was in handcuffs. The person with him was a police officer.
“What’s going on here?” Gilmore demanded, pointing the flashlight at his son.
The officer, ignoring him, continued to talk to Aaron.
“This is my son, officer, and I’d like to know why he’s in handcuffs?”
“He’s been arrested for possession of an illegal substance.”
“Sorry, Dad,” the young man mumbled, his eyes cloudy and still.
“Don’t worry, son. Things will work out.”
“Your son will be taken to the county jail,” the officer informed Gilmore, “where he’ll receive medical treatment while he detoxes.”
“I’ll see you there, Aaron.”
“No one, except the medical staff, is permitted to see those in custody while they are detoxing,” the officer said curtly.
He shrugged. “Those are the rules, sir. I don’t make them. I just follow them.”
As a priest, Father Gregor was able to visit prisoners going through withdrawal in order to provide spiritual comfort. So, early the next morning, he went to see Aaron, but was told the young man was sleeping. He returned later that afternoon and was able to speak with him for a few minutes even though the young man was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open.
“You know your father loves you very much.”
Staring at his hands, which were clenched together very tightly, he was silent.
“He’d be here with me, if he could, but that’s not allowed. Not until your clean.”
Still, he was silent.
“Soon though, once you get stronger, he’ll be able to visit you.”
“Listen, if you wish, we could say an ‘Our Father’ together.”
He nodded faintly.
“Our Father, who art in heaven,” he began, watching the young man intently. “Hallowed be thy name.”
All he heard was his voice, Aaron’s was quiet, and he wondered if the young man heard a word he was saying.
Surprisingly, when he returned to the jail the next morning, Aaron appeared even more lethargic. His eyes were vacant, with dark circles around them, and his head hung to one side as if it were loose somehow. He attempted to engage him in conversation but the young man still seemed to be listening only to voices in his head. Concerned, he asked one of the nurses at the facility about his seemingly deteriorating condition and was informed that lethargy was a pretty common symptom of someone detoxing from heroin.
“I don’t think he knows who I am,” Father Gregor said in frustration. “I don’t even know if he knows someone is trying to communicate with him.”
“Oh, he will in another day, Father,” Nurse Weinberg assured him. “Patients usually start to come around after two to three days of withdrawal.”
“I just thought he’d be a little better today… a little more responsive.”
The nurse frowned, scratching the side of her nose. “You know, when a drug like heroin gets its claws into you, it’s hard sometimes to get rid of it.”
“You have a good day now.”
I’ll try, he thought, watching the nurse return to her station.
In another moment, on his way out of the facility, he was stopped by a prisoner pushing a cart stacked with dirty dishes. “Father, do you have a moment?” he asked, anxiously looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“That kid you were visiting—”
“Yeah, Aaron,” he said, still looking over his shoulder. “He’s not doing well. I’ve detoxed from heroin a couple of times and, believe me, I was never in as bad a shape as he’s in.”
“The nurse I spoke to about him claimed his withdrawal was proceeding as expected.”
The prisoner grimaced. “My cell is right across from his and he was vomiting and dry-heaving all night long. He told me his heart was beating so hard he couldn’t sleep. He needs help and he needs it fast.”
Father Gregor considered speaking again to the nurse but doubted if she would say anything differently, doubted if anyone on the staff would disagree with her assessment. So he left the facility, hoping the prisoner had exaggerated the plight of the young man. He hadn’t, though, as the priest discovered on his next visit when he found Aaron sitting in a wheelchair in his cell. Alarmed, he asked one of the nurses why he was in the chair and she said he was too weak to support himself.
“I thought he was supposed to be getting better?”
“It takes a while, Father. Some people respond to treatment slower than others.”
“I wonder if he even is aware I am here to see him?”
“As I said, some patients take longer to detox than others.”
He frowned, squeezing his hands into fists. “Something isn’t right. I know it.”
“Trust me, Father. We have people detoxing in here all the time. We know what we’re doing.”
Later that evening he received a call from Gilmore telling him his son had passed away. He was stunned, but only for an instant, because each time he visited the young man it was obvious he was not improving. Though he expressed his concern to those treating him, he was always assured Aaron was on schedule in his recovery. His only medical training was a first aid class he was compelled to take when he was a lifeguard in high school but he knew the young man was in serious trouble. He just wished he had pressed his concern more vigorously, maybe asked to speak to the nursing director or to one of the attending physicians. Without question, he believed he had let down the young man and, if only in a small way, was partly to blame for his death.
“I am so grateful you have agreed to help me get Olivia away from this monster she’s living with,” Mrs. Murrey said to Father Gregor at the breakfast table in her kitchen.
“I’ll do what I can, ma’am.”
“Once we get her away from him, I know she’ll be grateful. Maybe not right away but, in time, I know she will be.”
He nodded then took a sip of the chicory-scented coffee she poured for him. After what happened to Aaron, he was really not prepared to get involved in another family matter but the pictures she showed him of her battered daughter offered him little choice.
“Are you familiar with the group ‘New Day’?”
“Is that a band?”
“Oh, no,” she snickered. “It’s one of those ‘maximize your human potential’ groups.”
“The reason I asked is that this man with Olivia used to work for the group. He was what is called a ‘facilitator’ who conducted four-day-long seminars designed to help participants realize their potential and become more fulfilled in their daily lives. He worked there almost a year before he was let go because some of his training methods became a little too intense. For example, he was known to encourage people to beat their fists against walls until their knuckles bled as a way of breaking down the barriers that kept them from realizing their full potential.”
“That is extreme, all right.”
She nodded, circling a cranberry-red fingernail inside her coffee mug. “I have little doubt he’s demanded that Olivia do such awful things. I have little doubt at all, Father.”
“So how do you propose to get her away from him?”
“Just take her,” she said firmly. “As if she were a member of some cult.”
“You’re talking about an intervention?”
“You can call it that, I guess.”
He leaned back on his stool. “I can’t get involved in something like that, ma’am.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be, Father. You’d just be there as an observer is all. You see, Olivia once was very religious until she got involved with this Roland character, and I think it would put her at ease if she saw a priest with me.”
He remained very reluctant about getting involved in such a scheme even though he was convinced the young woman would be better off to get away from this man she regarded as her common law husband. Of course, what he should do that instant, he knew, was politely decline to become involved and leave but, instead, he listened as Mrs. Murrey presented some of the specifics of the intervention which she intended to carry out at the Waterfront Blues Festival this coming Saturday evening. She said she planned to invite along an old girlfriend of Olivia’s, who also was very concerned about her welfare, as well as a couple of neighbors who were strong enough to prevent anyone from interfering with the abduction.
“So, Father, can I count on you being there?”
“I’ll just be there to observe, is that right?”
“Yes, I can do that, ma’am.”
Pleased, she slapped her hands together. “Thank you, Father. I promise you won’t regret your decision.”
“Why have you picked a music festival as the place to rescue your daughter?”
“The main reason is because I know she’ll be there. She’s been attending the Blues Festival since she was a sophomore in high school. And also, if there is any kind of ruckus, I don’t think anyone will notice because there is so much noise and horseplay that goes on at outdoor music events.”
As usual, the festival was packed, with the grass embankment in front of the stage blanketed by people dressed in garish outfits that seemed more appropriate for Halloween. Because it was so crowded, the minivan Mrs. Murrey rented for the undertaking could not be parked any closer than six blocks from the main gate. Mrs. Murrey was upset and wondered if they should try to grab her daughter another time but Sarkowsky, one of the neighbors who agreed to help her, was adamant they could carry out the abduction.
“Whoever spots her first will alert Andrea,” he said, referring to Olivia’s old friend. “Then I’ll drive the van up to the gate and pretend I have engine trouble, and as soon as Andrea manages to get Olivia near the gate, we’ll nab her.”
“All right,” Mrs. Murrey sighed. “That’s what we’ll do then. Everyone knows what Olivia looks like so let’s go find her.”
Schmertz, the other neighbor, agreed. “We’ll have her out of here before she knows what happened.”
Father Gregor was not really sure if he would recognize her, since the only picture he saw of Olivia was the one with the badly bruised face, but he was willing to try. So he got out of the van and walked with the others to the main gate. When they got there Mrs. Murrey assigned each person a particular area of the grounds to search, and his was the southeast corner which was at the opposite end of the stage. Still, it was crowded enough that he could not take more than a couple of steps without bumping into someone.
“I’m not a Catholic, padre,” an intoxicated young guy with long sideburns barked at him after he banged the back of his head with his knee. “I don’t need your blessing.”
“Here,” he said, lifting up a joint, “have a toke.”
“You’re sure now?” he chuckled smugly.
Warily, he made his way through the crush of people, looking at each young woman he approached to see if she was Olivia. The mournful music of the Mississippi Delta blared through the loudspeakers set up throughout the grounds and, at moments, he almost felt as if he were in the Deep South because the heat was sweltering and tasted like butterscotch. Swiping a bead of sweat from his forehead, he wished he wasn’t wearing a Roman collar tonight but Mrs. Murrey insisted so that Olivia would see that he was a priest.
“Over here, Father!” someone called out as he stepped around a jug of ice water.
At once, he looked around and saw a woman with rainbow-colored hair grinning at him. When he grinned back she knelt down on one knee and lowered her loose-fitting muslin blouse to reveal a cross pierced through her left nipple.
“For you, Father!” she cackled furiously, her green eyes shining in the twilight.
Quickly he looked away, always amazed at the particular thrill some people found in tempting a priest to break his vows. Often he said a prayer for them, but not this evening.
Moments later, as he made his way past three couples dancing to the infectious music, his cell phone rang and Mrs. Murrey informed him Andrea was walking with Olivia toward the main gate.
“All right. I’m on my way.”
“Hurry, Father. Please hurry.”
When he got to the gate he saw Sarkowsky and Schmertz struggling to get Olivia into the van. They were having a hard time because she was squirming to get loose and screaming so loudly several people had gathered around the vehicle. Mrs. Murrey, in a frenzy, seized his left arm and pulled him toward her daughter.
“Here’s a priest, dear!” she shouted, digging her fingernails into his arm. “He wants to help you like all of us do.”
She glared at him for an instant then turned and spit in her mother’s face, and immediately Mrs. Murrey slapped her so hard her lower lip started to bleed.
Numerous people demanded to know what was going on, a few even threatened to call the police, but Mrs. Murrey ignored them as she helped push her daughter into the van. Then, as Sarkowsky went around to open the driver’s door, someone grabbed his wrist and pulled him away from the van. Swearing at the person, he easily shrugged off the hold but then two more people intervened to keep him from driving away. Schmertz, who was inside the van, quickly got out and shoved aside the two individuals. Others joined in, however, so he pulled out a pocket knife and started waving it back and forth while Sarkowsky scrambled into the van. Scarcely anyone backed away, though, until a couple of moments later when Schmertz nicked some bearded guy across the side of his face.
“My ear!” the guy screamed almost as loudly as Olivia. “You cut off a piece of my ear!”
“You’re lucky I didn’t cut off something else,” he barked as he piled into the back seat next to Father Gregor.
More and more people surrounded the van, pounding their fists on the roof and hood. Frantically, Mrs. Murrey urged Sarkowsky to pull away, but it was impossible because no one would get out of the way. Father Gregor, who assumed the intervention would proceed without any trouble, could not believe there was so much resistance. And realized he had made a serious mistake by agreeing to help Mrs. Murrey because clearly his presence did not calm Olivia who continued to scream at the top of her lungs.
“Please, take a seat, Father,” Monsignor Inman said as soon as Father Gregor entered his office.
Promptly, he sat down in the lone, hardback chair that was in front of the monsignor’s enormous black, walnut desk.
“I know you were scheduled to meet with the bishop this morning, but I’m afraid he’s a little under the weather today.”
“I trust it’s nothing serious.”
Vigorously he shook his nearly bald head which was so bright it almost gleamed. “No, I understand he just has a touch of the flu that’s been going around the past couple of weeks.”
“Anyway, as I suppose you have surmised by now, he wanted to speak with you about the latest escapade you’ve been involved in, Father.”
“So I suspected, Monsignor.”
“He knows, and I have no doubt about it, either, that your heart is in the right place… that you want to help people who are in dire straits. But you cannot break the law in these merciful acts of yours, Father. Not only do you risk harm to yourself but also to The Church, which, by association, may be perceived by others as thinking of itself as above society’s laws. That can’t be.”
Father Gregor, folding his hands together, leaned forward in his chair. “Certainly, I regret any embarrassment I may have caused The Church. That was never my intention.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t.”
Nodding gravely, the monsignor looked at the single sheet of paper that lay on his desk. “Because of these escapades you’ve engaged in, the bishop has decided it would be best if you took some leave to reflect on what your true purpose is as a pastoral servant of our Lord.”
“You’re sending me into exile?”
“Well, that’s somewhat of an antiquated term but the bishop is ordering you to go away for a while.”
“You’re not going to send me to a house full of pedophiles, are you?”
“Where am I to go then?”
“Have you heard of Camp Schonley?”
“No, not to my knowledge.”
“Well, it’s a decommissioned Army outpost located across the river in the foothills of the Evergreen Mountains.”
“Others in need of reflection have spent time there,” he continued. “It’s quite isolated and very quiet, I’m told, which will allow you the opportunity to sort out what you need to sort out.”
“How long will I have to be there, Monsignor?”
He shrugged, fiddling with a bent paper clip on a corner of his desk. “As long as you need to figure out what your purpose in the priesthood is I suppose.”
“More than a week you think?”
“I should think so.”
“More than a few weeks then?”
“That entirely depends on you, Father, on the amount of effort you invest in this opportunity.” He paused, rustling the sheet of paper in front of him. “I understand someone from the diocese will check in on you every now and again and what he reports to the bishop on how you are making out likely will determine how long you’ll be at the outpost.”
The monsignor then rose from behind his desk and extended his right hand. “May our Lord and Savior be with you, Father.”
“And with you, Monsignor,” Father Gregor replied as he shook his hand which was damp with perspiration.
“Oh, look,” Father Petrie said, lifting his left hand from the steering wheel to point at the “Caution Troops Crossing” sign on the opposite side of the two-lane road. “We must be getting close to the camp.”
Father Gregor glanced at the sign, which was riddled with bullet holes, then looked at the young protégé of Monsignor Inman’s who was driving him to the place of his exile. He suspected the young man had not been out of the seminary more than two or three years because he was full of enthusiasm. Any errand the monsignor asked him to perform, he was sure, would be carried out as if it were absolutely essential. He had little doubt if he tried to escape the young priest would chase after him with a huge smile on his face.
“Will you be the person Monsignor Inman sends to check up on me?”
“I don’t know.”
“He hasn’t said anything to you about that?”
“Not a word.”
“Well, I suspect you’ll be the one since you’re taking me there.”
“As I said, Father, I don’t know anything about that.”
“I suspect so,” he muttered, staring at the soaring fir trees on either side of the road. “I just hope I don’t disappoint whoever is sent.”
“So do I.”
“Do you have any idea how long I’m going to have to be at this place?”
“I gather until you find what you’re there for, according to the monsignor. That shouldn’t take too long, should it?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t.”
A rusted panel truck rumbled toward them, with an elk strapped across the roof. Father Gregor frowned, suddenly aware of how deep in the woods the camp was situated. The fir trees were so thick and tall they nearly blocked out the sun which compelled Father Petrie to drive with his headlights on as if in a funeral procession. He wished, with all his heart, the bishop had not decided to banish him but supposed that his eminence had no choice. Someone was seriously injured in the attempted abduction of Mrs. Murrey’s daughter, and he was very fortunate the person did not press charges against him. Still, his involvement in the action was mentioned in the newspaper and one television station even showed some footage of him getting in the minivan, all of which brought considerable embarrassment to the Church. So he had to be reprimanded in some fashion, he appreciated that, he just wished he wasn’t being sent into exile like some pathetic pedophile.
It was hard to admit but he had seriously considered refusing to enter the car with the young priest this morning. He was tempted to tell him he was not feeling well enough to go on a long drive, was afraid he might get sick to his stomach. It was not true because, physically, he felt fine but he didn’t want to go to some isolated place he had never heard of and live like a Trappist monk for he didn’t know how long. Still, he knew he had to obey the monsignor because of the vow of obedience he made nearly seventeen years ago at his ordination into the priesthood. To be sure, there were plenty of occasions when he was tempted not to comply with particular instructions but, so far, he had always resisted the temptation.
Surely, the closest he came to breaking any vow was not more than a year and a half after his ordination when he happened to see Madeline, his girlfriend in high school, one evening at an airport. She was one of several high school classmates who were stunned when he told them he intended to enter the seminary after graduation. She was, like him, a cradle Catholic, but she could not believe he wanted to become a priest, thought it was a grave mistake, and even tried to persuade him to change his mind to no avail.
They had not seen one another since high school, she having moved back east to go to college, and awkwardly shook hands. Then, at her suggestion, they went upstairs to the lounge for a drink.
“You know, Keaton, I really never thought you’d follow through on becoming a priest,” she said almost as soon as they sat down at a table.
“I know you didn’t want me to.”
“No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want you to. I just never thought of you as the sort of person who enters the religious life.”
“And what sort of person is that?”
Arching her razor-thin eyebrows, she took a sip of the white wine she ordered. “Oh, someone who doesn’t mind being alone a lot of the time.”
“I didn’t enter a monastery.”
“True, but you have to be on your own much of the time. I mean, you’ll never have a family of your own.”
“Don’t you wish you could have a family some day?”
“The church is my family.”
She frowned. “That’s not the same, Keaton, and you know it isn’t.”
He started to reply when a portly man, seated alone at a table near theirs, shot back, clutching his throat with both hands. At once, Father Gregor sprang from his chair and rushed over to the table, stood behind the man and circled his hands around his belly. The man, who was choking, started to lose consciousness. Forcefully, he jerked his hands upward, practically lifting the man out of his chair. He did this, repeatedly, until an olive pit burst out of the man’s mouth.
“You see, you should have been a doctor instead of a priest,” she said when he returned to the table.
“That was just something I learned when I was a lifeguard many years ago.”
She took another sip of wine. “Tell me, if I invited you to my hotel room, would you come?”
“Please, be serious, Madeline.”
“I am absolutely serious,” she said, crossing her heart with a single finger.
“I can’t do that. I have my vows. You know that.”
“You can do whatever you want, Keaton. You’re not a child.”
He just shook his head, astonished that she dared to ask such a question.
For several seconds she did not say a word, as if waiting for his answer, then all of a sudden she leaned across the table, took his face in her hands, and kissed him so hard his bottom lip started to bleed. “That’s so you won’t forget me,” she said, rising out of her chair.
Pressing a finger against the bite mark, he watched her walk out of the lounge, sure he would never see her again.
Some ten minutes later, as they drove past a burnt-out shed, the two priests saw on a slope half a mile ahead of them a row of eight barracks that looked as bleak as boxcars. They were made of wood and covered with clapboards. All one-story, they were as green as the surrounding trees, although in many areas the paint was chipped and peeling.
“I wonder if anyone is here,” Father Gregor said, sounding concerned, as they turned onto the gravel road that led into the compound.
“Someone has to be,” Father Petrie replied, after noticing a battered pickup truck parked behind one of the barracks.
“I don’t know. It’s awfully quiet.”
“I can change that,” he said and beeped his horn a couple of times as they crept up the road.
No one appeared, though, so he beeped the horn a few more times. Still no one came out of any of the buildings.
“That’s strange. It was my understanding that the caretaker would be here to show you around the place.”
“That was my understanding as well.”
“Maybe we should get out and see if he’s sleeping in one of the barracks.”
“Sleeping? It’s almost one o’clock in the afternoon.”
Father Petrie shrugged as he opened his door. “Maybe he had a hard night last night?”
Father Gregor walked over to the nearest barracks and tried to open the door but it was locked. Then he peered through one of the dusty windows and saw stacks of bed frames and mattresses in the middle of the bay that almost reached the ceiling. Plainly no one had slept there in a very long time. He started to check on another barracks when a hefty guy in a denim jacket and a faded baseball cap strode out of a corner of the woods. Poised on his right shoulder was a long, muddy shovel.
“Sorry I wasn’t here when you fellows arrived, but I was doing some digging and lost track of time.”
Father Petrie nodded. “No problem.”
“I’m Matt Buckwalter, the caretaker here,” he said as he dropped the shovel on the ground and stuck out his right hand.
Both men shook his hand which was as freckled as his round face.
“I take it one of you is the priest who’s going to be spending some time at the compound?”
“Yes, that would be me,” Father Gregor answered, briefly inclining his head.
“Well, Father, if you like quiet, you’ll find plenty of it here.”
“I suspect so.”
“And your name is?”
“Keaton. That’s an unusual first name.”
“It’s my mother’s maiden name.”
He smiled, never having met anyone by that name. “So would you like to see where you’ll be staying?”
“All right, let’s go have a look,” he said, making an abrupt about face. “It’s the Bravo Barracks near the top of the slope.”
The two priests followed Buckwalter up the slope through patches of grass that brushed their kneecaps. At one point a jackrabbit darted between them, startling Father Petrie so much he nearly lost his balance. Father Gregor smiled, sure the young priest was eager to return to the comforts of the rectory.
A small, gray, metal desk sat in a corner of the barracks and beside it a metal chair and a shadeless floor lamp. In the opposite corner was a narrow bed with a thin mattress and a single pillow, and at the north end of the bay was the kitchen which consisted of a table and two chairs, a sink, a fridge, and a small stove.
“I know there is not a lot here,” Buckwalter said, “so, if you like, I can round up a couple more pieces of furniture for you, Father.”
“No, no, this’ll be fine.”
“Well, if you change your mind, just let me know.”
“Behind that bamboo curtain screen in the back is the bathroom.”
“So, if you like, I can show you fellows around the compound now.”
“Thank you, sir,” Father Petrie said hurriedly, “but I have a long drive ahead of me so I should be on my way.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to have a look around?” Father Gregor asked, not really surprised by his eagerness to leave.
“No. I should be going.”
“Well, thank you for driving me here.”
The two priests shook hands, then Father Petrie returned to his car while Father Gregor climbed into Buckwalter’s truck to take a tour of the compound. Other than the barracks all there was to see were trees and grass that stretched for miles. But for many decades, Buckwalter told him, the compound was a bustling military training facility with several rifle and grenade ranges, a bayonet field, obstacle and infiltration courses, and a gas chamber.
“During the Second World War,” Buckwalter noted, driving past the shell of a vintage Jeep, “the compound served as an Italian prisoner-of-war camp.”
“Is that so?”
“So I’ve been told because I wasn’t even born then.”
“What is the compound used for these days?”
“Well, it’s not really used much at all. Sometimes, in the summer, some companies will come out for a few days so their employees can get to know one another better and maybe rekindle their enthusiasm for their jobs.”
“Oh, we always have some scout groups that come out for a weekend but, as I said, there’s not much activity anymore.”
“What about someone like me?”
“Since I’ve worked here, which is close to eight years, you’re the first priest who’s come out here by himself.”
“Is that so?”
Nodding, he maneuvered around a split tree limb in the middle of the dusty dirt road. “What brings you here, Father, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You don’t know?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t have asked.”
“I was sent here by my diocese because I did a bad thing.”
“What was that?” he persisted, fearful that the priest was a child molester.
“I tried to help a mother help her daughter and, as a result, I embarrassed myself and the Church.”
“So being sent here is a sort of penance?”
“In a sense, I suppose, but not one I volunteered to perform.”
“How long do you fix on being at the compound?”
“It’s not up to me, Mr. Buckwalter.”
“Please, Father, call me Matt.”
“All right, Matt,” he complied. “It’s up to the diocese. As long as I don’t get into anymore trouble, I figure it won’t be too long.”
He chuckled. “You don’t have to worry about getting into trouble here. This place is damn near quiet as the inside of a church.”
That evening, lying on the narrow Army bed, Father Gregor found it hard to go to sleep which surprised him because he was exhausted. He thought one reason might be because the compound was as quiet as Buckwalter said, but he also knew he could not keep from thinking about why he was sent here. Monsignor Inman made it quite clear he expected him not only to seek forgiveness for his involvement with Mrs. Murrey, but also to decide if being a priest was really something he wished to continue to pursue.
Not for an instant did he regard it as a mistake to help someone in distress, that is something priests are supposed to do, but he did regret helping Mrs. Murrey because she misled him. As he discovered later, she was an active member of a similar but rival splinter-group from New Day, known as the “Anointed,” and all she was interested in was bringing her daughter back into the fold of that group. Nothing she said about her daughter being abused by her so-called husband was true. The photograph she showed him of Olivia’s bruised face was taken after a spill on her bicycle. He could not believe he was so gullible, realized now he should have asked many more questions of her than he did. Instead, he followed his heart which, he should have known, can often lead one in the wrong direction.
After he shaved, showered, and had a bowl of cereal, Father Gregor sat down at the desk in the barracks and opened his coffee-stained Bible to the Gospel according to Matthew. Then, for several seconds, he stared at his folded hands in front of the Bible, breathing slowly and deliberately. It was so quiet in the musty room he could hear each breath he drew. Following the suggestion of Monsignor Inman, he was about to begin the ancient practice of praying the Scriptures instead of just reading them. Known as Lectio Divina, Divine Reading, it was a method of prayer in which one is encouraged to listen to the words with his heart.
He cleared his voice then, almost in a whisper, he read Matthew’s account of the first temptation of Christ: “The tempter approached him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’”
He leaned back in his chair, reminded of the different interpretations of the temptation he had presented in sermons over the years. Then realized that was not the purpose of this method of prayer and leaned forward and repeated the “stones into bread” phrase again and again until his forehead gleamed with perspiration.
Father Gregor knew he could not stay inside the barracks all day praying and contemplating his future as a man of God, nor did he think anyone in the chancery expected him to, so he offered to help Buckwalter with some of his chores around the compound. The caretaker was surprised but gladly accepted his offer as he needed to spruce up a couple of rifle ranges by the end of the week.
“Why’s that?” he asked.
He grinned, revealing a missing incisor. “Some realty company is scheduled to come out here this weekend and I was informed they’d like a place where they could shoot off some fireworks. So what’s a better place than a rifle range, right?”
“That makes sense.”
“We’ll get started on it tomorrow morning then, if that’s all right with you?”
“Whatever you say, Matt.”
Buckwalter lived in Schlueter Grove, which was some eleven miles east of the compound, so he did not arrive until half past nine. Quickly, he and the priest piled some rakes and brooms and shovels in the back of his truck then drove out to a range alongside a shallow creek a couple of miles north of the barracks. Grungy and full of weeds, the grassy range was about half the size of a football field with stacks of tattered sandbags lined up at one end. A bare flagpole, bent at the top, stood behind the sandbags.
“Before we do anything else, we should rake the range,” Buckwalter suggested as he handed Father Gregor a bamboo rake.
“After the compound was decommissioned, I understand, the Army hired a contractor to clean up the place. The main concern, of course, was to remove any munitions left over from all the years of training that went on here. That was four years ago, and I still come across brass on the ranges.”
“Spent shells. But every now and again I’ll find a live round. So be vigilant as you rake, Father.”
Nodding, the priest dragged the flimsy rake across the ground very cautiously, concerned at any moment he might set off an explosion. But after a few minutes he began to relax, as if back at the rectory, raking maple leaves into piles the height of traffic cones. The morning air was cool but soon he grew warm and felt patches of sweat spread across his back and shoulders. He was tempted to take off his windbreaker but was afraid he might catch cold so he kept it on but pushed the sleeves above his elbows. When he finished raking, he picked up a shovel to dig out weeds which proved a lot more strenuous. At moments, he wondered if it was a smart idea to offer to help Buckwalter with his chores but then realized the ancient practice of praying the Scriptures was even more demanding.
“What was that?” Father Gregor asked as he emptied a pail of weeds into a plastic yard bag.
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard something in the woods.”
Buckwalter, turning around, held a hand behind his right ear. “I don’t hear anything.”
The priest shrugged his left shoulder. “I must’ve imagined it.”
Just then, in rapid succession, three emphatic whip-cracking sounds burst from deep in the woods.
“Damn it!” Buckwalter growled, dropping his hand from behind his ear.
“What is it?”
“I thought this place is off limits to hunters?”
“It is, Father, but that doesn’t stop poachers from coming out here in hopes of shooting a deer or an elk.”
“There’s nothing you can do to stop them?”
Tired, he leaned a hip against his shovel handle. “Oh, if I see any poachers, I let them know they’re trespassing and threaten to call the sheriff but they know and I know by the time the sheriff gets out here they’ll be long gone.”
“So you’ve never squared off against any?”
“A few months back I did cross paths with one poacher and nearly got my head blown off. The guy said he thought I was a deer. Maybe so, but I have my doubts.”
“What did you do?”
“I told him he was trespassing on Federal land, and he started going on how the land belonged to the people, not the government, and claimed he could come here whenever he damned well pleased.”
“Is that a popular sentiment around here?”
“I don’t know, Father. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that before. Poachers come here because there’s game here, not to make some kind of political statement.”
“You think we should try to find out who’s doing the shooting?”
He shook his head. “It’s too risky to be tramping around in the woods when folks are shooting guns.”
“So how are they ever going to be stopped?”
“Oh, I’ll continue to put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs and make complaints to the sheriff’s office, but other than that there’s not much else I can do.”
The priest, not convinced other measures couldn’t be taken, did not say anything and turned and stared long and hard at the woods.
They had nearly completed the clean-up of the second rifle range when a dark green station wagon appeared in the distance on the narrow gravel road. It was headed toward them, moving at a pretty good pace, with a huge cloud of dust in its wake.
“You think these might be the poachers?” Father Gregor wondered out loud.
Buckwalter smiled. “Nah, it’s my wife. She said she might come by today.”
The middle-aged woman was almost as tall as her husband with nearly as broad shoulders. Her flaming red hair, however, was much longer and tied in a ponytail that fell to the base of her spine. Her calico skirt was much too short, Father Gregor thought, unflatteringly exposing her kneecaps which looked like the faces of angry clowns.
“Mary Grace,” he said, after she got out of the station wagon, “I’d like to introduce you to Father Keaton Gregor.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Father.”
“And yours as well, ma’am.”
“Call me Mary Grace. Everyone else does, including my nieces.”
He smiled. “I’ll do that then.”
“I baked some blueberry muffins,” she said, glancing at the carton she left on the passenger seat, “and I thought you gentlemen might enjoy them.”
The priest started to thank her when three more gun shots rang out from the woods.
Buckwalter, frowning, looked at his wife. “Poachers.”
She was not surprised. “About half a mile from the gate I noticed a truck parked along the side of the road. I figured it belonged to folks up to no good.”
“You think we should check it out?” Father Gregor asked Buckwalter.
“And do what, exactly, Father?”
He thought for a second. “Maybe leave a note on the windshield reminding them this is a restricted area.”
“I can just imagine what they’d do with that note.”
“We should do something, though,” he insisted. “We could take down the license plate number and report it to the sheriff.”
Buckwalter, rolling his eyes, flicked a bead of sweat from the tip of his nose. “Yeah, we can do that, all right, but we still have no proof they’re the ones doing the shooting.”
“We could wait for them to return to the truck, and if they have a deer with them, we can take their picture and that should be all the proof we need.”
“Yeah, we could do that, Father,” he conceded. “But I’ve got work to do here and I can’t be wasting my time waiting for that to happen.”
“Besides,” Mary Grace added, “the first rule in dealing with poachers is: don’t confront them. Remember, they’re armed. You’re not.”
He nodded slowly, realizing that Buckwalter had no interest in challenging the poachers. Apparently, if they didn’t bother him, he wouldn’t bother them. So he expected to hear many more shots fired during his stay at the compound.
“Your guest seems a little excitable,” Mary Grace remarked as she sat across from her husband in his nook of an office in the Foxtrot Barracks which was adjacent to the mess hall.
He smiled, munching into his second muffin. “You’re referring to his wanting to check out that truck?”
“I am. Sticking your nose into someone else’s business is a sure way of getting it broken.”
“I’ve told him that, but he doesn’t seem to listen.”
“Well, he better, or his time here could be a lot harder than it needs to be.”
“The trouble with the good father is he can’t sit still,” he said, dusting some crumbs from the front of his flannel shirt. “As I’ve told you, he was sent here as penance because of his penchant for getting involved in other people’s problems.”
“Hell, if he knows what’s good for him, he better learn to sit still.”
“I agree,” he muttered, flinching a little as more shots erupted from the woods.
Father Gregor shoved the half-eaten muffin to a corner of his desk, leaned forward, and recited the second temptation of Christ: “’If you are the Son of God,’ the tempter said, ‘throw yourself down.’”
Leaning back, he repeated the temptation several times, struggling to picture Jesus standing on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it was difficult and, increasingly, his thoughts strayed to the vintage military whistle that sat next to the muffin. It was made of solid brass, about the size of his thumb, with a long chain attached to one end. He discovered it last night, wedged in the back of one of the desk drawers. It was very tarnished so he assumed it had not been used in years. Curiously, he put it between his lips, wondering if it still worked, and it did, sounding as shrill and clear and emphatic as it must have sounded on a drill field.
Soon he tired of praying and picked up the whistle and blew it as forcefully as he could. Grinning, he imagined himself marching under the stern gaze of a ramrod-straight drill sergeant who appeared as intense and sure of himself as Monsignor Inman. As always, he envied such confidence, wishing he shared their certainty in the things he did.
Suddenly, a snake as narrow as a garden hose slithered in front of Father Gregor as he approached a stream and, instinctively, he kicked a rock at it. He hated snakes, still rattled by the memory as a boy when an older cousin he was playing with wrapped one around his neck.
“Get out of here!” he snarled as he watched it disappear behind a fir tree. “Get the hell out of here!”
Late in the afternoon the priest often went for a walk in the woods that surrounded the barracks. The first few days he just did it to exercise his legs, but after Buckwalter told him about the “fire balloon” that might have fallen in the woods he went in search of it.
“You know, not all poachers carry firearms,” Buckwalter mentioned to him one day while they were replacing some shingles on the roof of one of the barracks.
“Some hunt with bows and arrows?”
“Oh, yeah, some do all right, but I was referring to the folks who come out here to look for the fire balloon.”
“You’ve never heard of it?”
The priest shook his head as he handed the caretaker another shingle.
“Near the end of the Second World War the Japanese launched thousands of balloon bombs toward North America with the aim of starting fires in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.”
“Really?” Father Gregor said, surprised. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Not that many folks are. At the time this was going on the people in the Pentagon chose not to say anything about it because they were worried people living in the Northwest might panic.”
“I should think so.”
“Only a few fires were ever ignited so the Japanese considered the campaign a failure,” he said. “However, one family across the river in Oregon was killed by one of these bombs—the only fatal casualties, as far as I know, suffered on the mainland during the war.”
Father Gregor swept a hand through his shock of chestnut-brown hair. “Well, I guess you really can learn something new every day.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know anything about these balloons, either, until an article appeared in the local paper a few years ago marking the anniversary of the deadly explosion.”
“So you think one of the bombs landed here at Camp Schonley?”
“I have no idea. No one does, for that matter, but it’s a strong possibility since the camp was an active training facility during the war.” He paused, adjusting the collar of his wrinkled work shirt. “Which is why folks come out here looking for the fire balloon.”
“There can’t be anything left of the balloon, though?”
He agreed. “Most of them, I was told, were made out of paper. They were pasted together with a potato-like substance by schoolgirls who only went to school half the day so they could contribute to the war effort.”
“Is that so?”
“That’s what I was told. So all that would be left is the explosive which, no doubt, is covered by piles of leaves and mounds of dirt.”
“Whoever finds it will garner a lot of attention, I’m sure.”
“And maybe even some money, too, with people inviting the person to talk at schools and churches and museums about his discovery. That’s what really brings folks out here looking for the balloon I believe.”
“You think so, do you?”
“That’s the reason why I looked for it.”
“Oh, you have?”
“Yeah, when I first heard about the fire balloon, but after a couple of months I realized it was a waste of time because it has to be the smallest needle in the biggest haystack that’s ever been.”
Buckwalter, chopping a stack of wood behind the mess hall, stopped when he heard a car coming up the gravel road. It was his wife, with a couple bags of groceries on the passenger seat of the station wagon.
“I didn’t think you were coming by until later,” he said, setting his axe against a cedar stump.
“I wasn’t but I forgot I promised to help McKenzie hang some curtains this afternoon.”
“I don’t see your guest anywhere,” she remarked, after briefly surveying the ground. “Is he in his barracks praying?”
Buckwalter grinned mischievously. “No, he’s not in his barracks.”
“Where is he then?”
“He’s out in the woods looking for the fire balloon.”
“He sure as hell is.”
Anxiously she shook her ponytail. “Why, in God’s name, did you tell him about that damn balloon, Matt? You know it’s nothing but an old wives’ tale.”
He shrugged. “I figured it’d give him something to do,” he explained. “He’s not allowed to leave the premises. He can’t have a phone or a radio or a television or any papers or magazines. He’s not a monk, Mary Grace. He can’t be expected to sit in his barracks all day and pray.”
“Maybe not, Matt. But you’ve sent him on a wild goose chase. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know, but it’ll help keep him occupied for a while, otherwise I’m afraid he might go stir crazy around here.”
“You might as well have told him to look for Sasquatch.”
He chuckled. “Maybe I’ll do that later.”
“You really don’t have any idea how long he’ll be here?”
“I don’t. He doesn’t, either, he told me. Which is why I’m chopping some firewood so he’ll be able to keep warm when the weather starts to get cooler.”
“That won’t be for another couple of months.”
“It’s never too early to prepare for bad weather around here, he said, picking up the axe.
“I suppose not.”
Groaning audibly, Father Gregor sat down on a charcoal gray boulder and nibbled some blackberries he picked a few minutes earlier. He was surprised how sluggish his legs were, almost felt as if weights were attached to his ankles. Buckwalter suggested he begin his search for the fire balloon in the northern sector of the woods, just above the infiltration course, and so he had, trudging through needle sharp brush that came up to his knees. This was his third afternoon in the area and still he had not spotted any sign of the bomb. He wasn’t discouraged, though, well aware, as Buckwalter had said, he was looking for a needle in a very large haystack.
After he ate the berries, he got up from the boulder and resumed the search. As before, he proceeded cautiously, concerned if he took a wrong step he might set off an explosion of the buried balloon. Around his neck hung the Army whistle he found earlier in the week. Right away, he showed it to Buckwalter, who said he had come across many such whistles over the years, and the caretaker suggested it might be a good idea if he carried it with him so if he ever got into any kind of trouble he could blow it for help. That made a lot of sense so he hung it around his neck along with the silver crucifix he had worn since he entered the seminary. The two ornaments made him feel, if not invincible, strong enough that he could cope with just about any obstacle he encountered in his search for the fire balloon.
He was pretty sure if Monsignor Inman knew what he was up to he would not be pleased. The monsignor expected him to spend most of his time at the compound in prayer, as if he were still in the seminary, and though he tried to do just that the first week, he found it too difficult. To be sure, as a seminarian, he could kneel and pray for an hour at a time but, the past year, he had trouble praying for just a few minutes as doubts increasingly crept into his head. Other priests he knew who experienced doubts about their choice of vocation, about their faith even, often were comforted by the cryptic observation of the early ecclesiastical writer Tertullian regarding the resurrection of Christ: certum est quia impossibile est (“it is certain because it is impossible.”) The incredulity argument did not cure his doubts, though, but remained a paradox he was unable to reconcile with the nagging questions in his head.
Half an hour later, after climbing a steep rise that overlooked the infiltration course, he sat down on a split birch tree, took a sip from his water bottle, and began to massage the back of his sore legs. He was so tired he suspected, if his legs weren’t aching so much, he could fall asleep on the tree and not wake up for a couple of hours. Grimacing, he started to take another sip of water when he sensed he was being watched and turned around and saw an eight-point buck staring at him from beside a felled cedar tree. He held his breath, afraid if he didn’t the animal might get spooked and run away. But after nearly a minute and a half he could not hold it any longer but, surprisingly, the animal did not budge and continued to stare at him. It was so still the priest wondered if he was just imagining it was there so, very slowly, he slipped off the whistle hanging around his neck and slipped it between his teeth and blew it as hard as he could. Immediately the buck wheeled around and disappeared behind some brush.
He smiled so hard he started to laugh.
Mary Grace, watering the geraniums near the front entrance of the mess hall, waved when she saw Father Gregor heading toward his barracks. She assumed he had been out looking for the fire balloon again because he had a pack on his back and was carrying the long cedar branch he used as a walking stick when he was out in the woods.
“Find anything out there?” she asked just to make conversation because she knew it was unlikely.
He shook his stick. “Nothing but a pair of broken sunglasses.”
She wondered, for a split instant, if she should tell him it was doubtful he would ever find any trace of the Japanese balloon bomb out there but, instead, said, “Well, maybe you’ll have better luck tomorrow.”
By now, he didn’t really care if he found the fire balloon. He went out looking for it, day after day, because it was less strenuous than sitting at a desk trying to pray. That wore him down more than any steep climb did and caused his heart to shudder and ache because he didn’t know if he believed in prayer anymore.
Father Gregor, winding through a rugged stretch of switchbacks in the northwest area of the woods, nearly lost his balance when the toe of his left boot stumbled on a half-concealed tree root. But, just as he was going down, he managed to grab hold of a maple branch and arrest his fall. Still, he felt a twinge in his ankle that he hoped would not be a problem.
“Watch where you’re walking,” he scolded himself as he resumed his search for the fire balloon.
Soon after he got through the switchbacks, he spotted a stream off to his right and headed for it, eager to rinse the sweat from his face and neck. He was within a few feet of it when he heard the crack of a rifle shot and flinched because it was so loud. It must be very close he reckoned. Then he heard two more shots, even closer, and scrambled behind a moss-covered rock and peered around it and saw two figures, outfitted in camouflage jackets and caps, shooting at a border collie. The left flank of the animal was so soaked in blood it appeared to be covered with a bright red blanket and a side of its skull was completely exposed. Clearly the dog was dead but the two men continued to shoot at it, as rapidly as they could, as if determined to remove every inch of his skin.
Repulsed, he closed his eyes and squatted behind the rock and waited for them to leave. He hated to admit it but, if not for Father Barnett, he might have been just like those men he was sure were poachers.
When he was a sophomore in high school, he hung around with a couple of older boys who had driver’s licenses but no cars. So sometimes on the weekend they would break into cars and hot wire the engines and cruise around town as if the cars belonged to them. They never intended to keep the vehicles they took, just drive them around for a while, and then leave them in the parking lot of some popular supermarket where they would be easily found. Three times he accompanied the older boys on their joyrides, always pulsing with excitement whenever he was invited to go with them. He felt older then, more mature somehow, even though he never got to drive any of the stolen cars. But he did share cans of beer and malt liquor with his friends and mentholated cigarettes. The last joyride he went on ended badly when the car he was in sideswiped another car on a hairpin curve. No one was seriously injured, just banged up a little. Panicking, he and the other boys took off running but were soon tracked down by some other drivers and held until the police arrived and took them into custody. After being charged with the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, they spent the night in jail. Later, they were each sentenced to one month probation and were ordered to perform 150 hours of community service. Also, the licenses of the older boys were suspended for a year, and Gregor was informed he would be prohibited from driving for a year once he was old enough to operate a motor vehicle.
Raised by a single parent, his father having abandoned the family when he was six, he knew how much he had disappointed his mother and promised he would never go joyriding again. She was skeptical, though, and asked their parish priest to speak with him. Because the priest was scheduled to be out of town the next few days, he had one of his associates, Father Barnett, meet with the youngster.
He had never exchanged a word with the recently ordained priest and was very reluctant to do so but his mother insisted so one afternoon, as soon as he got out of school, he met with him in a closet of a room at the rectory. There was only a single chair in the room so he expected he would have to stand at attention before the priest and listen to him deliver a stern lecture on right and wrong. Instead, the priest picked up the basketball that was on the chair and invited him to play a game of “HORSE” with him at the basket attached to the side of the garage of the rectory. Gregor was stunned, thought for an instant he misunderstood him, then realized he did hear what he thought he heard as Father Barnett dribbled the ball out of the room.
“You start,” the priest said, bouncing him the well-worn basketball.
Nervously, he tossed up a lazy hook shot from the left side of the basket, which the priest deftly matched, then tried another a little farther out and missed. Father Barnett then proceeded to sink one jump shot after another, from every conceivable angle, and easily dispatched him. They did not play a second game rather they took turns shooting the ball while discussing why the youngster was there this afternoon.
“When I was about your age, Keaton, I had a friend who thought it would be a good idea to drive his grandfather’s car without asking for permission. And, like you and your friends, he got in an accident but it was a very serious accident that cost him a leg.”
Gregor, not knowing what to say, just dribbled the ball harder and harder.
“That well might happen to you if you continue to do things you’re not supposed to do.”
“I don’t know you, son, but you seem to have a level head on your shoulders so you shouldn’t let others do your thinking for you. If you know something is wrong, don’t do it because others are doing it. In the words of Jiminy Cricket, ‘Let your conscience be your guide,’” he said as he swished a jumper from deep in the corner of the driveway.
A few days after their meeting, Father Barnet invited him to attend a college lacrosse game, and he went even though he knew nothing about the sport. To his surprise, he enjoyed himself and accompanied the priest to several more games. Afterward, they would go to a McDonald’s for cheeseburgers then drive around town for a while in Father Barnett’s decrepit green Toyota. They would talk about whatever was on their minds, sharing their ambitions as well as their regrets. The priest became the older brother he never had, providing the guidance and understanding of someone who had known him for a long time.
Back then no one was the least bit concerned that a priest and a young boy spent time together outside the church while nowadays, as he well knew, people would be very suspicious, worried that the older man intended to take advantage of his young acquaintance. Father Barnett never laid a hand on him, except to exchange high fives with him whenever he sank a clean jump shot in their one-on-one games, and more than anyone was the reason why he entered the priesthood. He wanted to become someone as generous and compassionate and encouraging and sincere as Father Barnett.
“May I pour you a glass of sherry?” Monsignor Inman asked as soon as Father Petrie entered his office.
“I didn’t expect you back so soon,” he remarked, after handing him a sherry that was almost as dark as his enormous desk.
“I guess I made pretty good time.”
“I’m sure you did, but what I meant is that I thought you might decide to spend the night at the camp.”
He grimaced. “No, Monsignor. The thought never crossed my mind.”
Smiling, the monsignor took a sip of sherry. “I don’t blame you, Father. I wouldn’t have considered it, either. One summer, when I guess I was around nine, my parents sent me to camp for two weeks, and I was never so miserable in my life. Some people like the outdoors, I recognize that, but I’m not one of them. I prefer looking at trees and streams from a distance, preferably in an air-conditioned car.”
“I’m not much of an outdoor person, either.”
“So, tell me, how is Father Gregor getting along at Camp Schonley?”
“I can’t say he’s excited about being there.”
“I shouldn’t think he would be.”
“But he does seem to be doing a lot of reflecting because every day, he told me, he goes for long walks in the woods.”
Yawning, the monsignor stretched his spidery arms above his head. “That’s good to hear. When you’re alone, as he is, you often are compelled to think about the truly important things in your life.”
“I suspect he’s doing just that.”
“I pray that he is but I have my concerns. He just doesn’t seem content with doing the pastoral work of a parish priest. Instead, he wants to be doing adventurous things, things that get noticed, things that have little, if any, connection to his obligations as a parish priest.”
Father Petrie, who scarcely knew Father Gregor, did not respond to the monsignor’s skeptical remarks.
“The priesthood, by its nature, is a lonely profession. Each of us who enters it has, in effect, abandoned ourselves to our Lord and Savior. I just am not sure if Father Gregor is content being an abandoned man any longer.”
He wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with that notion, either, but rather than press the monsignor on the matter he asked, “How much longer do you figure he will have to be at the camp?”
“Long enough that he recognizes that, in the words of the French Jesuit Caussade, ‘there is nothing pathetic about the abandoned man.’”
“After the tempter took Jesus to a very high mountain, he showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory,” Father Gregor read from the Gospel of Matthew. “All these I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage.”
He had discussed this temptation in numerous sermons over the years, and had always interpreted the passage as a crude invitation to commit the sin of avarice. But now he wondered if it might not be more than that, if it might have a political dimension, an ends-justify-the-means connotation, in which the temptation was to do evil that good may result.
Abruptly, he smacked himself in the forehead with the heel of his right hand, recalling that in Lectio Divina the purpose was to listen to the words of Scripture not interpret them as he had for so long.
“Listen, you numbskull” he reprimanded himself. “Listen… listen… listen!”
Approaching a familiar hillside, which he had slogged up the past two days, he spotted a jackrabbit some twenty feet ahead of him and on an impulse started after it. It was difficult to run because of all the underbrush, but he moved as quickly as he could. He knew he could not catch the rabbit, which was much too clever and quick, but he relished the challenge of trying to because he was convinced he needed to get stronger and faster if he was to go much deeper in the woods.
A quarter of the way up, he was still at it which he knew would not have been the case two weeks ago when he first went alone into the woods. Then, he was so out of shape he had to stop every few minutes to catch his breath. Now, at least, he could make it to the top without stopping a single time. He had never been much of an athlete, only was able to play on the high school basketball team because of the help of Father Barnett who often played one-on-one games with him on Saturday afternoons. But now he was determined to get in better condition so he could search every square inch of the woods for the fire balloon.
At the top of the hill was a small pond and he walked over to it and bent down and splashed a handful of water on his face. It was as cold as an icicle pressed against the back of his neck. Breathing heavily, he looked around for the rabbit but it was nowhere in sight. He was not surprised. Then, on another impulse, he stepped out of his clothes and waded into the pond. After just a few seconds, his teeth began to chatter but he refused to get out until he stayed a full minute in the freezing water because he wanted so badly to get stronger for the days to come at the compound.
“One Mississippi … Two Mississippi … Three Mississippi,” he started to count, his whole body trembling as if caught in a savage storm.
“Good afternoon, Father.”
Father Gregor, hanging some wool socks on the clothesline strung behind his barracks, turned around and saw Mary Grace in a pair of stonewashed jeans that were so snug she could barely walk. “Hello there.”
“How are you doing today?”
“Don’t have any complaints.”
“You still looking for that fire balloon?”
He nodded. “I just got back from looking for it in the northeast area a few minutes ago.”
“Any luck?” she asked, pretty sure there was nothing to be found.
“No, not yet,” he sighed, hanging a wrinkled tennis shirt alongside the socks. “But I don’t mind, really.”
“No. Because it gives me a chance to stretch my legs. I can’t stay inside the barracks all day.”
“Otherwise you might get cabin fever.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he replied, noticing all of a sudden that the top three buttons of her western-style shirt were unbuttoned.
“I was just teasing, Father.”
She was not wearing a bra, as was her custom, so he could clearly make out the sides of her wobbly breasts. He wondered if she was really that warm this afternoon or if she was trying to excite him. Through the years he had encountered other women who seemed to enjoy trying to arouse a priest.
“You know what?”
“You should come over to the house for Sunday dinner some day.”
“I’d like to, Mary Grace, but I can’t.”
“Why’s that?” she asked, idly fingering one of the unsnapped buttons. “You can’t be that busy around here.”
“I’m not allowed to leave the premises.”
“Say the folks who sent me here.”
“How are they going to know if you slip away for a couple of hours?”
“I’d know, and that’s enough,” he said emphatically. “I was told not to leave and I intend to abide by that instruction.”
“Well, then, maybe we can have Sunday dinner in the mess hall one of these afternoons.”
“I’d like that.”
“So would I, Father.”
A thorn snagged his left sleeve as he made his way through some dense underbrush and immediately he stopped to loosen it then resumed his hike with his walking stick in his right hand. It was his third day exploring the northeastern section of the woods and, as with the other sections he had explored, he had not come across any trace of the fire balloon. But, as he told Mary Grace, he didn’t much care if he found the balloon because he was really out in the woods to get some needed exercise, as well as to avoid the struggle of having to pray for long stretches of time; which he didn’t mention to her.
Trudging past a stand of birch trees, he noticed some scat on the ground which appeared fresh and suspected a deer might be in the vicinity. Pausing, he looked around but the brush was so dense he doubted if he could make out if a deer was there. But in case one was he decided to walk a little slower, not wanting to disturb the animal, and continued on, his walking stick tucked under his arm so it didn’t scrape anything. After nearly a quarter of a mile, he paused again, sure he heard something, and cupped a hand behind his left ear. At first, all he could hear was himself breathing then, off to the right, he heard what sounded like voices.
“Poachers,” he whispered under his breath.
He considered turning back, but only for an instant, then pressed ahead. Gradually, the voices became louder but still he could not make out what was being said. When he got to the edge of a narrow ridge, he knelt behind some vines and parted them and saw three men with rifles not more than a hundred yards away. They had thick, dark beards and wore orange juice orange hunting caps. One of them, whose left hand was bandaged, had a noticeable limp as if one leg was a little shorter than the other. Immersed in conversation, they were looking at one another then, all of a sudden, they stopped talking and looked to their right, and Father Gregor looked in that direction too, figuring they had spotted a deer. He didn’t see anything, though, but assumed the men probably had a better view than he did so he was sure they must have spotted something. At once, he clamped the Army whistle between his teeth and blew it and blew it and blew it. Startled, the poachers whirled around, straining to see who was doing the whistling, then turned back and started firing repeatedly while Father Gregor crept away on his hands and knees. He didn’t find the fire balloon today but it almost seemed as if he did because he felt such a sense of satisfaction.
He didn’t come across any poachers the rest of the week but early the following week he did spot a man and a woman with hunting rifles. For nearly a mile he tracked them, always keeping a safe distance back so they didn’t mistake him for a deer. Then, just as they were set to shoot at something they had spotted, he got out his whistle and blew it three strong times. To his surprise, he felt as excited as he did the previous time he prevented poachers from killing an animal, so much so he wanted to let out a loud scream but was afraid if he did the hunters might start shooting in his direction.
His left arm throbbing, Father Gregor carried three more folding chairs from inside the mess hall to the grassy area behind the weathered building.
“How many is that?” Buckwalter asked as he slit open a bag of charcoal briquettes.
“A baker’s dozen.”
“All right, Father, that should be enough.”
Nodding, the priest began to unfold the chairs and set them at the two long wooden tables he and Buckwalter took out of the mess hall earlier. True to her word, Mary Grace invited him to join her and her husband and some others for Sunday dinner at the compound. Because the weather was so mild she decided to eat outdoors in the area behind the mess hall.
“Do you always have so many guests for dinner on Sundays?”
He smiled, carefully arranging the briquettes in the bottom of the grill. “Well, maybe not as many as we’re having this afternoon, but Mary Grace always likes to have some guests at the table,” he said. “Also, it’s a couple of days before her cousin Sharna’s birthday so this is kind of an early birthday dinner for her.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to give to her.”
“Don’t worry about that, Father. Your company is enough.”
Shortly after four, Mary Grace and her cousin and friends arrived in their cars, chugging up the narrow gravel road in single file. One by one she introduced them to the priest, who could barely remember one name from the next except for Walt Stricker who was Sharna’s fiancé. Though he didn’t have a beard, his left arm was wrapped in a bandage and he walked with a limp so Father Gregor suspected he was one of the poachers he blew his whistle at last week. He could not believe a guy engaged to Mary Grace’s cousin had the nerve to hunt for game at the compound. He wondered then if he were mistaken. Maybe Stricker wasn’t the limping poacher he saw the other week. It was conceivable he reckoned, but he doubted it.
“Who needs to work up an appetite?” Halimon, one of the guests, asked as he unfolded the step ladder lying against the rear of the mess hall and set it up beside the wheelbarrow that was chock-full of ice and Coors six packs.
“I do,” his girlfriend, McKenzie, said, slapping her hands against her thighs.
Sharna and the other two couples eagerly agreed as Halimon and McKenzie taped numbered recipe cards to each rung of the ladder.
“How about you, Father?” Mary Grace asked while setting paper plates on the tables.
He smiled. “I can always use some exercise. What do I have to do?”
“Throw this,” Halimon chuckled, pulling out of his jacket a small brown beanbag which he then flung across the wheelbarrow to Glickman who was a neighbor in Schlueter Grove.
“The ladder toss is a very simple game,” Mary Grace said, cocking a hand on her hip. “The objective is to toss the bag through the different rungs, which are worth various points, and the one who accumulates the most points after a certain number of tosses is the winner.”
“What do you win?” the priest asked.
“A big fat Kosher pickle!” Buckwalter shouted from the grill.
Ellis, another Schlueter Grove neighbor, was the first to throw and he chucked the bag through one of the lower rungs for 15 points which was the second lowest score possible in the game. He was not happy and instantly knocked back a long swallow of beer. Marty, his wife, then made a feeble toss that somehow made it through the 20 point rung which made him even more upset.
Through the first round everyone but Glickman, who tossed the bag well to the left of the ladder, managed to score. The leader, with 50 points, was Rickles, a dart throwing partner of Buckwalter’s. Father Gregor and Halimon, each with 30 points, were in third place. They played two more rounds, with Rickles maintaining his lead, when Mary Grace, banging a wooden spoon against one of the bowls of potato salad, announced that it was time to eat.
Once everyone was seated, she said, “Father, if you will, please say grace.”
Nodding, he made the Sign of the Cross then lowered his head and said, “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
“Amen,” Mary Grace murmured along with some of the others at the table.
“So, how does it feel to be clean shaven again?” Buckwalter asked, after sliding a hamburger onto the sesame bun on Stricker’s plate.
“A little strange,” he admitted with a hint of a grin. “I hardly recognize myself now when I look in a mirror.”
“It certainly feels a lot better,” Sharna interjected, stroking a finger across his chin. “And you look a good ten years younger, darling.”
Seasoning his burger, he stared at her for a moment. “I wish I felt ten years younger, babe.”
Rickles’ wife, Jemma, who sat next to Father Gregor, explained to the priest that all of the men except for Buckwalter played on the same bowling team, and as a result of losing a bet with their arch rival, they could not shave for three months.
“I have to give them credit,” she conceded, after scooping a forkful of coleslaw into her mouth. “Not one of them shaved before the end of the three months.”
Trading smiles with her, the priest looked at Stricker’s three teammates and tried to imagine them with thick, dark beards. And, almost at once, a vein began to pulse in his throat as he wondered if they were with Stricker the other week in the woods. He could not be sure but he would not be surprised since they were all such close friends.
“Excuse me, Father,” McKenzie, who sat on the other side of him, said, in a velvety voice, as she passed him a bowl of green olives, “I have a question.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do around here all day? You can’t meditate and pray all the time, can you?”
He grinned. “I suppose I should but, no, I don’t. I regret to say.”
“So what do you do then to pass the time?”
Before he could answer her, Mary Grace, spooning some relish on her burger, said, “He’s out looking for that Japanese fire balloon.”
McKenzie tilted back in her chair, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her eye. “Many years ago, while my father was stationed here as an ordnance officer, he told me he spent half a summer looking for that balloon.”
“Did he ever find any sign of it?”
She shook her head. “He began to wonder if one ever landed around here.”
“I’m beginning to wonder the same thing.”
“It keeps you occupied, though,” Mary Grace said, biting into a corner of her burger. “Isn’t that so, Father?”
He nodded. “It does indeed.”
“Aren’t you concerned about being out there all by yourself?” Jemma asked, shading her eyes from the sun as she stared out at the woods.
“That’s why he wears that thingamajig around his neck,” Buckwalter declared as he sat down next to his wife.
“What’s that?” Jemma asked. “Some kind of religious medallion that’s going to protect you from harm?”
“It’s a whistle.”
At once, Father Gregor noticed Stricker and his friends exchange glances, further supporting his suspicion that they were the poachers he blew his whistle at last week.
“Yeah,” Buckwalter continued, “Father found it in the barracks he’s staying in and showed it to me, and I told him he ought to wear it around his neck when he’s out in the woods so that if he needs help for any reason he can blow it.”
Jemma leaned back from the table, resting a hand on her husband’s knee. “Let’s hear what it sounds like, Father.”
Obliging her, he blew a short toot on the whistle.
“You think Matt is going to hear that if you get too deep in the woods?”
“Hell, yes, I’m going to hear it,” Buckwalter insisted through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “My hearing is as good as it ever was.”
“If you say so, Matt.”
“What did you say?” he cracked, holding a hand behind each ear.
“That whistle must’ve belonged to a drill sergeant it’s so shrill,” McKenzie surmised.
“It was loud enough to put a crimp in the plans of some poachers we had around here the other week,” Buckwalter told her with a stern gaze. “Father saw them getting ready to take down a deer, but before they could get a shot off, he blew the whistle and scared off the animal. Isn’t that so, Father?”
He nodded, aware out of the corner of his eye that Stricker and his friends were glaring at him.
“I think that deserves a toast,” Buckwalter proposed, lifting his nearly empty beer bottle above his head. “To Father Gregor and his very loud whistle.”
Everyone raised their drinks high in the air except Stricker, who barely lifted his bottle off the table. Father Gregor noticed his indifference which Stricker was well aware of as he dangled his bottle by the neck.
After dinner, Mary Grace set on the main table a red velvet cake she baked for her cousin. A single pink birthday candle sat in the center of it which Sharna needed a couple of breaths to blow out. Mary Grace then cut a large slice for her cousin and much smaller slices for her other guests. Stricker declined his, however, which Buckwalter was more than happy to put on his plate.
A few minutes later, after polishing off both slices, Buckwalter patted his belly and groaned, “I feel like I’ve put on seven or eight pounds today.”
“You probably have,” his wife teased, poking him in the belly.
“I need to do something to take the weight off and I’ve got just the idea.”
“What’s that, darling?”
“A stone throw.”
Grinning, she shook her hair. “Count me out.”
“Is that anything like the ladder toss?” Father Gregor asked, intrigued.
“Nah,” he said, shambling over to a stone the size of a basketball that sat behind the barbecue grill. “This is a challenge that tests your strength, not your marksmanship.”
“I guess that counts me out too.”
Sighing audibly, Buckwalter bent down and hoisted up the stone then rested it on his left shoulder. “Let’s see who the strongman is today, gents,” he grunted as he invited Stricker and the other men to take part in the throw.
Ellis was the first one to accept the challenge, and after taking a minute to loosen the muscles in his arms and shoulders, he gripped the stone with both hands and tossed it underhand some fourteen feet.
“Pathetic,” he groaned, and no one disagreed with his assessment. “Just damn pathetic.”
“You’re a trouble-maker, aren’t you?” Stricker muttered as he stepped beside Father Gregor while the priest waited for his turn to throw the stone.
He glanced at the clearly inebriated man. “Excuse me?”
“Isn’t that why you were sent here? Because you got into some kind of trouble?”
“I had some differences with my superiors. That’s true.”
“So you’re a trouble-maker?”
He didn’t reply and watched Rickles heave the stone nearly twice as far as Ellis did.
“You know, Father, you should be careful,” he said, slurring his words. “You don’t want to get into any trouble here, do you?”
“I didn’t think so. So I’d be very careful if I were you.”
“You’re not threatening me, are you?”
“No, not at all. Just offering you some sound advice.”
“Do you, Father? I hope you do, for your sake.”
Early the next morning, seated at his desk in his bathrobe, Father Gregor again opened his Bible to Matthew and in a whisper of a voice read, “The people who lived in darkness saw a great light; light dawned on the dwellers in the land of death’s dark shadow.”
His voice trembled, as did his fingers, and his forehead grew moist with perspiration. He did not understand why he found it so difficult to pray these past few months. It was something he had done for years without any sort of problem but now he could barely recite a few lines of Scripture without feeling as if he were going to lose consciousness and find himself sprawled on the floor. Beside himself, he edged back from the desk, mystified that it had become so much easier to walk for miles in the wilderness than to pray.
That afternoon, despite Stricker’s implied threat, Father Gregor resumed his search for the fire balloon, his walking stick at his side. It was a little cool out so he put on an Army field jacket that Buckwalter found tucked away in a footlocker along with a pair of leather gloves and a wool scarf. He looked like he was going on some kind of reconnaissance mission, he thought, all he needed was a steel helmet to wear.
Yesterday, after dinner, Stricker made it clear that it would be wise for him to stay out of the woods but he didn’t take the warning seriously. He figured that was the beer talking and wasn’t really concerned that Stricker or his friends would be foolish enough to do anything other than curse and holler if he scared away some more game they were about to kill. They didn’t impress him as malicious people even if they were poachers.
An hour into the search, he spotted a buck nibbling some blueberries and stopped and looked around to see if anyone else was there but he was alone. So he just stood and watched the animal whose antlers looked as sharp as paring knives. Just the other evening he asked Buckwalter about the faint scar across his left forearm, and the caretaker told him many years ago an elk he had wounded with an arrow slashed him with one of its antlers.
“I’ve never been in such pain,” he recalled. “It was so full of rage I know it wanted to kill me and well might have if my old man hadn’t finished it off with a bullet to the head.”
The next three days he spotted a buck and a badger but no poachers. Then, late Friday afternoon, after crossing a frigid little stream, he heard voices in the distance and immediately wondered if Stricker and his friends had returned because the previous time he saw them was on a Friday. Not wanting to alert them to his presence, he crept ahead, holding his breath for as long as he could because he wanted to be so quiet. Gradually the voices grew louder, more distinct until he was able to make out three men, with rifles at their sides, passing around a bottle of whiskey. Stricker was not one of them but Halimon was there, his prescription aviator sunglasses perched on top of his orange cap.
“Jerk,” he muttered to himself.
The poachers passed the bottle back and forth a couple more times then slung their rifles over their shoulders and headed east, moving side by side through very thick underbrush. Without hesitation, he trailed behind them, making sure he stayed far enough back to they did not spot him. The three men scarcely said a word to one another as they walked, their attention was so focused on finding some indication of a deer. After a couple of miles, the priest wondered if they might head in another direction but they continued east, trudging through undergrowth that sometimes reached their shoulders. He was surprised they were so patient, especially Halimon, who was always getting up and down at the table Sunday at dinner.
Just a few feet from a rackety waterfall that was scarcely a yard wide, Halimon paused and held up his right hand to signal the others to pause too, and they did. Father Gregor figured he must have spotted something in the brush to the right of the waterfall so he stepped behind a fir tree and watched. The three men did not budge for close to three minutes then, ever so slowly, Halimon raised his rifle to a firing position. At the same instant Father Gregor slipped the whistle between his teeth, but he did not blow it right away. Instead, he waited for the other two men to raise their rifles, then he blew the whistle.
Immediately shots rang out as he scurried away, his head bent, still trying to keep out of sight even though he was sure Halimon had to know who blew the whistle. He was so excited, so certain he did what needed to be done, he could not help from grinning like a jack-o’-lantern. Soon he was running so hard his arms felt like wings so it seemed as if he were soaring above the ground. Thorns and nettles tore at his hands and sleeves but he scarcely noticed he was moving at such a fast clip. He could not wait to get back to the compound and tell Buckwalter he had thwarted some more poachers.
Starting down a steep stretch of switchbacks, he continued to run as hard as ever, his head weaving from side to side as if someone were slapping him across the face. He was about a third of the way through the stretch when his left heel slipped on some wet leaves and he stumbled and fell to one knee. Then, as he started to get up, he lost his balance and spilled several yards down the hillside until he slammed into the trunk of a gigantic tree.
“Damn it!” he shouted.
Furious at himself for being so reckless, he clenched his hands into fists and pounded the ground between his knees. Then, as he tried to push away from the tree, he felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder and immediately wondered if he broke a bone. Exasperated, he sat there for what seemed like several minutes, hoping the poachers would appear so he could ask for help. No one came, though, and he doubted if anyone would by now. Overhead, a hawk circled, squawking angrily.
“You fool!” he chastised himself. “You damn fool!”
Shutting his eyes, he muttered under his breath “stones into bread” then blew the whistle. Again and again he blew it, praying someone somewhere would hear it. He knew he was a long ways from the compound but maybe Buckwalter would hear it and realize he was in trouble. After close to an hour had passed, despite the pain in his shoulder, he attempted to push himself free again, and as he did he rolled off the trail into a narrow ravine and cracked the side of his head on a boulder and almost swallowed the whistle.
Many of the searchers returning to the compound switched on their flashlights because of the growing darkness, but not Father Petrie. He was so familiar with the terrain by now he was confident he could find his way to the mess hall with his eyes shut. This was the sixth day he had participated in the search for Father Gregor organized by Buckwalter and the sheriff of Schlueter Grove, and it would be his last because he was under orders to return to the diocese at the end of the week. Last night, he spoke with Monsignor Inman on the phone and asked to stay another week but his request was denied. He expected as much. The monsignor didn’t have a very favorable opinion of Father Gregor, regarded him as someone who was reluctant to listen to his superiors, so he would not be surprised if the monsignor thought Father Gregor got tired of his confinement and just walked away. He didn’t believe that for a moment but he knew others beside the monsignor shared that suspicion.
“It’s a shame you have to leave tomorrow,” Mary Grace said as she handed Father Petrie a mug of coffee when he entered the mess hall.
“Believe me, I wish I could stay longer.”
“You can’t for just a few more days?”
He shook his head. “I have my marching orders.”
“That’s one thing a priest does, isn’t it? Follow orders, just like someone in the Army.”
“We take an oath of obedience and we’re obliged to abide by it.”
“Well, I’m sure everything will turn out all right,” she insisted, sitting down with him at one of the long tables. I just have a good feeling things will work out for the best.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You know, I wouldn’t be all that shocked to see Father Gregor walk through the door one of these days. He’s always impressed me as a very resourceful person.”
“He is that. That’s for sure.”
“So it might happen. You never know.”
“You never do.”
“I wish I was that optimistic,” Buckwalter muttered, after joining them at the table.
“He’ll be found. I know he will.”
Buckwalter, slurping his coffee, rolled his eyes. “There is just so much ground to cover, hundreds and hundreds of acres, and half of it is woods as dense as cobwebs. And, believe me, no one knew that better than Father Gregor because every day, rain or shine, he was out there looking for that damn fire balloon.”
“That’s the explosive left over from the war?”
He nodded. “No one is even sure it fell anywhere around here but, for whatever reason, Father Gregor was determined to find it. Hell, folks have been searching for remnants of that thing for years, and I’m afraid we might be looking for him for years too.”
“Don’t say that,” his wife scolded him.
“Well, it’s the truth, and I figure that’s what the priest wants to hear. Isn’t that so, Father?”
“Well, then, there you have it,” he said, after taking another slurp of coffee. “So I don’t think it much matters if you leave tomorrow or a month from tomorrow because we’ll be looking for Father Gregor for a long time I suspect.”
Just like the fire balloon, the priest thought, staring at the remains in his coffee mug.
When Harmon finally made his way back to his house the car belonging to the woman was there once more as well as Lyla’s car. Sprawls car was gone. He quickly dashed inside the house and discovered Lyla sitting on his chair in the living room, bent over his desk, his sketchbook open upon it. She looked at the drawing of selfsame visage with pursed lips and wide eyes.
“That was supposed to be a surprise.”
She gasped and dropped the notebook. To Harmon her face born a sign of shame that were as a curse upon her and a faint flame of suspicious there lit up in the corridors of his tired and tumbling mind.
“I’m sorry. I had tried calling but you didn’t answer.”
“Had went for a walk. Forgot to bring my phone,” he replied gesturing to the device where it lay at the corner of the table nearest the wall, not far from the sketchbook.
“So what brings you here, fair lady?”
Lyla rose slowly, hesitating, as if the words had been snatched from her throat. She quickly regained her composure and shrugged, “Dunno. Just wanted to see you.”
“You know why.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“I understand college is demanding but we never meet up anymore. We rarely even talk.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, I just want you to be with me.”
“I’m with you now.”
Harmon moved to stand before the woman. He was two inches taller than her, three with his boots on, and looked down into her large, coffee colored eyes and raised his hand to her face and leaned down towards her, gently caressing her lips with his own. Smooth and warm and delicious. She kissed back, hard and slowly wrapped her slender arms about his neck as heart beats quickened. Harmon slid his hand beneath her shirt and she shivered at the touch and smiled.
“I’m sure you can figure out a way to warm me up.”
Harmon rang up Bluebird at noon.
He tried a third time and finally she answered through text, writing only: “Can’t talk rn. Busy.”
Harmon cursed under his breath and slammed the small, black plastic flip-phone shut and slid it into the pocket of his jeans and straightened and looked off towards the old coal breaker, palled by shimmering sheets of rain. They had planned to go out today given that the forecast had ruled out the possibility of work. He wondered what had occasioned such a reversal?
“Am I so unimportant that you can’t even spare a single fucking minute to speak to me? To explain precisely why we can’t meet? You could just explain it vaguely and that’d suffice,” Harmon thought dejectedly as he sat down upon the peeling white, steel chair that sat lonesomely, like as he, in the backyard of his house, legs overtaken by ground ivy.
Harmon loathed self-pity and resentment, such qualities were those which he’d always perceived in his inferiors. He rose and paced and went back inside the house and looked to the illustration on the leatherbound notebook open on the plain, living room table. He studied his drawing of his girl and her smile seemed to mock him. Wordlessly, he threw on a worn, gray sweater, work shoes and sunglasses and headed out the front door.
The sun hovered over the ruins of the age’d industrial facility like a great bloated vampire, leeching the chthonic dark like as the creature from his dream. He didn’t know where he was headed, only that he wanted to walk. Needed to. He felt caged and wreakful and wore fearful of what he might do should he remain locked within the house. A group of young hispanics sitting upon the porch of a ruined tenement jeered, whereupon he slowed and then paused and held their gaze until they fell silent and squirmed with discomfort and the beginnings of fear whereupon he continued on his way. Fists balled at his sides and his breath coming in sharp, rapid inhalations.
After two hours of walking to the right from his house, he found himself standing before the coal breaker that lay like a dead colossus at the northeastern edge of town. Sun was strangled in the sky by a shroud of roiling clouds like hateful khefts and crows dived and perched from the wracked exterior of the abandoned processing plant like living daggers hungering for blood.
Harmon hated the place. To his mind, it was unconscionable to let such a majestic construct be overtaken by the greedy, swarming multitudes of nature. Every twisting, rangy vine, every rain-washed and mosquito-thick rut, every unpainted wall and door and broken window filled with bird feather and pollen-dust was a vile heresy.
Crunch of gravel. Footsteps.
He turned away from the frontal facade of the old coal breaker, to the left, where, just beyond the mangled, gravel drive, stood a woman with wild hair and light skin; she wore a multi-colored sweater, torn at the right shoulder and mud-stained tennis shoes held together by ducktape.
“Yall ain’t police is ya?”
“No, ma’am. Why do you ask?”
“They keep on harassing us.”
“Who is ‘us’?”
She thumbed the air, pointing with her digit over her shoulder towards a ratty lean-to surrounding by old tires and rusted cars.
“Us. You know that its illegal to be homeless here?”
“You ain’t homeless though. Got a tent.”
“They don’t recognize the tent as a home.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. Mind if I ask what you’re doing out here?”
The woman stood uncertainly, swaying on her heels, eyes vacant, body lax. When she did not respond and slowly sat down on the ground, playing with a fraying thread upon the knee of her jeans he spoke up without moving.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Harmon. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Yeah. Yall seen the Bone Man?”
“The Bone Man. He comes round every so often.”
“Caint say as I have.”
“He’s got a little bag of skulls. Bird bones. That’s why we call um Bone Man. Don’t know what he does with um or where he gets um from but he always carries um.”
“Sounds like an odd fella.”
“Yeah. He is. He scares me.”
“Cuz I think that one day… one day I might end up in that bag of his.”
“Why you think that?”
“Don’t know, just do.”
He wondered if there were truth to the woman’s story or if it were just the product of a drug-addled mind. Momentarily, a pudgy, balding man with a trucker’s cap approached, scratching his beard.
“Heard ya talking. This a friend of yours?”
Luna shook her head.
“Nah. Just met him.”
Harmon tilted up his head and nodded in the man’s direction. The man nodded back and then returned his attention to the woman on the ground.
“I need your help with something.”
The man with the trucker cap looked suspiciously to Harmon and then knelt and whispered something in woman’s ear whereupon she nodded and slowly unfurled herself from the gravel. The pair then left off, returning to the lean-to and from their they headed off for a small camper in the far-flung distance. She was a mule, Harmon was certain of it. Probably a tester as well. For a moment he considered following them but hesitated. Hands working at his sides and his heels digging into the grit with a muted, flinty hiss.
He took a step forward. Then three more. At the fourth a new voice intruded upon him, it rough and jovial and foreign.
“It ain’t wise to follow people that are more dangerous than you.”
Harmon spun and discovered a tall, thin man watching him from atop a beaten and rust bitten pickup. The man wore a ball cap low and metal rimmed sunglasses and a dull flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves.
“How long you been there?”
“That ain’t no answer.”
“It is. Just not the one ya wanted.”
“You said those people were dangerous.”
“All people are dangerous.”
“You being purposely opaque?”
“I’m clear as crystal.”
“Crystal ain’t always clear.”
“I didn’t say it was, said I was clear as.”
Harmon paused and nearly chuckled but caught himself at the last. He found the strange interloper as amusing as bizarre.
“Harmon. I heard. I’m Ryter. Jonathan Ryter.”
“Is that girl ok?”
“Like as not the answers no.”
“You don’t seem much perturbed.”
“Lot of not ok people in the world.”
“Yeah. You live here?”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“Not. You were going to go after them.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Certainly seemed like you were.”
“Well, they ain’t exactly normal.”
“Neither are you.”
“I think I’m pretty normal.”
“Normal man woulda walked away. Called the police.”
“You think they’re cooking something?”
“I dunno. Are they?”
“Couldn’t say. What would you do if they were?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
The man muttered something to himself and then swung himself over the side of the back of the truck and eased down onto the gravel and left off towards the front of the coal breaker and looked off towards the south where an ominous stormwall built in the sky.
“Going to rain.”
Harmon followed his gazed.
“Looks like it. I’d best be heading back then.”
“If you’re planning on walking you’ll get caught out in it.”
Ryter gestured to the coal breaker.
“You’re welcome to come inside til the storm passes.”
“Mighty kind of you.”
The man nodded, more to himself than to Harmon and walked into the overgrown breaker. Drawn to the man’s easy cadence and confident gait Harmon found himself following. Down the slight decline of the gravel drive and past the old power plant to the duo’s immediate left that overshadowed the tents of the junkies scattered all about the drive and outer yard where stirred dozens of glassy-eyed cast offs who sat upon over turned buckets and cinder blocks, ringing round tiny fires and jabbering of the unfortunate wending of days. Some of the itinerants looked to the duo moving towards the old facility and spake one to the other in hushed tones of grave concern and fear moved them back to silence when the sunglassed man looked in their direction.
When they passed within the decayed structure a flock of crows fluttered off from the ground and fluttered around the rafters as thunder echoed in the distance. They walked between rows of old seats where breaker boys and sorted coal by hand, beyond which was a heavy tarp upon which was a circle of bones, meticulously arranged and all of animals, lizards and possums and cats and dogs and birds and other things which Harmon could not place within the animal kingdom. It was then that Harmon recognized the man for who he was; the bone man of whom the female mule had spoken. He felt uneasy, increasingly so as the man stepped into the circle of ivory remnants and removed therefrom a old and battered tome without title save a strange sigil which Harmon could make neither heads nor tails of.
“What are all those bones from?”
“Animals I have found during my travels.”
The sunglassed man did not look to the bones and seemed not at all perturbed by them and instead flipped open the book and scribbled a couple lines down with a curious pen that looked to have been cast of bone itself. Without forewarning, a woman’s voice sounded from somewhere nearby as rain began to pelt the boarded and broken windows.
“I didn’t know we were having company.”
“Neither did I,” Ryter replied with a broad smile. Harmon turned and beheld a young woman hunched upon one of the old sorting tables; he had missed her upon entering. Her hair was short and cropped at the sides and the left side of her face was covered over with hideous scars that ran the length of her neck and vanished beneath a pale, green parka.
“Don’t be rude. Introduce yourself.”
The woman sighed like a petulant child and then rose and stepped forth from the darkened corner of the room and moved to stand before Harmon.
She held out a wool-gloved hand from the ends of which more scars fled up her arm like the aftertracks of some massive species of worm. He took her hand and shook it, “Harmon. Nice to meet you folk. I had seen long ago that some people had set up tents around the breaker but I had never given any thought to people living in it – had always heard it was dangerous.”
“Upper floors are. Wouldn’t recommend you go up there alone.” The woman stated flatly. Harmon got the distinct impression she didn’t care for company.
“I’ll keep that in mind. So, what brought you two here?”
“Just needed in from the rain. Going to have some tea, you want some?”
The woman turned round and moved to a small portable electric heater which had been set up on the right-middle-most anthracite sorting table. The table was iron and was the thus imperious to the heat and on top of the heater sat a small metal thermos and beside it lay two tin cups and into the cups she poured an aromatic brew.
“Must be nice.”
Harmon gestured out to the criss-crossing iron bars of the rafters, “Living here. No taxes.”
The woman nodded.
“Yeah. Sometimes the police come round to chase out those who’d set up tents in the yard; that’s why we don’t keep much on this floor, someone walking by the windows might see us and then its up on trespassing charges. Course, that’s unlikely to happen, police round here are sparse and don’t make much of an effort. Its a long drive from the station all the way down here and a long walk from the power station to the breaker to the conveyor and dumphouse.”
Far behind them Ryter had finished writing in his book and set it upon one of the processing tables and then returned to the circle of bones and began rolling them up into the tarp on which they sat and then deposited them into a old, wooden chest in the far left corner of the room. Then the man ambled back with a tin cup which Freya dutifully poured for him. The trio drank in placid silence and shortly thereafter the rain subsided and Harmon thanked the itinerant duo for their hospitality and said he must be getting back before dark and then left off for home.