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.