Prologue & The End of His Life

MICHAEL O'BRIEN

Following is the Prologue and an excerpt from chapter one of The Father's Tale by Michael O'Brien. Of this book, Peter Kreeft writes: "This is a magnum opus in quality as well as quantity. All of O'Brien's large and human soul is in this book as in none of his shorter ones: father, Catholic, Russophile, Canadian, personalist, artist, storyteller, romantic. There is not one boring or superfluous page."

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Prologue

In late February of a year not long past, Dr. Irina Filippovna, a physician, was crossing the interminable expanse of the taiga on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and happened to be an unwilling witness to a singularly odd event. Though the coach in which she rode was third class, the seat hard, and her fellow passengers in foul or despairing moods due to the recent disruption of rail service by ecology protestors, she had planned to sleep away much of the journey between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. She had delivered a lecture on immunology at a medical institute in the former city and had hoped to disembark in the latter without undue trouble, and from there to make her way by bus and horse-drawn sleigh to her home village, where she maintained a small but necessary practice.

A handsome woman in her early forties, she was a widow with two sons to support. It was her custom to work with quiet determination to keep her life as simple as possible in order to bring what remained of her family through these times – the sociopolitical situation that now seemed more confused in some ways than it had been under the Communist regime. She had no love for anything that remained of the state's apparent omnipotence and its omnivorousness. Neither did she waste energy trying to understand the universe in other terms, for what might or might not lie beyond it could never be proved by science. She was in her own estimation a mother and a scientist. She often reminded herself that she had a good deal to be grateful for, especially her husband, whom she had loved as no other in her life, and her sons, who were now, if it might be expressed in this way, her very life. She was a person with a complicated but by no means unique personal history. An intellectual, though an impoverished one, she was neither political nor naive. She entertained no sentimental illusions about her native land, yet in her soul she loved it fiercely, even as she doubted the existence of the soul.

It was her habit from time to time to adjust what she called her "Russian mask", the impenetrable neutral expression that projected an attitude of indifference and resignation, for it had a tendency to slip from her face at inopportune moments, usually those moments that she later dismissed as lapses "for humanitarian reasons". She was not indifferent and she was not resigned, but she had throughout her lifetime learned that it was best to hide the more personal elements of her character – and certainly before strangers. She was, she told herself, immune.

Thus, when from the corner of her eye she observed an unhappy man on the seat across the aisle, she noted the fact but attributed no significance to his presence. He appeared at first glance to be little different from several others in the coach, hunched as he was inside a dirty greatcoat, gaunt, haggard around the eyes, scowling, unshaven. He was about her age, perhaps a bit older. From time to time he lifted his left hand, favoring it as if it were sprained or burned, and pressed it to the frosted glass of the window beside him. Yes, a burn, she decided, assessing his wincing, the livid red disk on his palm, and the weeping blisters. She considered offering him an antibiotic salve from the medical bag at her feet but thought the better of it. His hair, dyed a glaringly artificial yellow, stood up in spikes, like that of a decadent American rock star. Not a few young Russians in the big cities affected the same appearance, but in a middle-aged man it was repulsive. She decided not to make contact. He might be drunk or a criminal, or both, but clearly he was a disturbed person, and the hundreds of versts yet to cross could all too easily degenerate into tribulation. The country was full of irrational, dispossessed people like him. Though she felt a momentary impulse to help, she warned herself against involvement and firmly put the poor fool from her thoughts.

Hoping to nap a little before the next jarring rumble across the next nameless frozen waterway that drained the limitless void, she closed her eyes. She had just succeeded in dozing off when his voice brought her fully awake again. He was now declaiming in a strange accent, quoting poetry. A closer inspection of the pathetically intense monologist revealed that his features did not precisely fit any templates of the numerous racial groups in the country. What was he? Where was he from? Well, no matter; it was not her concern.

Feeling more irritated than disgusted, she noted that he was reciting to a very pretty girl seated opposite him and that she was crying. The foreigner, succumbing to infatuation or desire or simple madness, was trying to console her with verse. Then he reached into his pocket and, to the astonishment of all the surrounding passengers, suddenly burst into flames. Yes, fire and smoke. An enterprising old man threw a cup of water onto the fellow's pants, and the fire went out. Now the fool was convulsing in agony. Collapsed onto his seat, he was grimacing in extreme pain.

Dr. Filippovna sighed, shook her head, and reached into her medical bag.


Part One

I. The End of His Life

On the first Sunday of Advent in the previous year, a man named Alexander Graham said a prayer that was to have unforeseen consequences.

He lived on Oak Avenue in Halcyon, a town of twelve hundred souls situated in the forested hill country north of Lake Ontario. Because his home was only a few blocks from his parish church, he went out that evening into a snowstorm and trudged up the street with the intention of making a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Although he was not an exceptionally pious person, he had of late been haunted by a sense that his life was over, or soon would be, and he wished to speak to God about it.

The church windows were dark, but he found the side door unlocked. Inside the vestibule he stamped his feet on the slush mat to rid his boots of snow and blindly located the door into the nave. The interior was warm, lit only by the flicker of amber vigil lights ranked in front of statues and by the ruby tabernacle lamp hanging over the high altar. They cast a subdued glow, enough for him to see his way down the aisle to his customary pew. This was on the left side, halfway to the front, beside a pillar. The soft mutter of candles, the scent of beeswax and incense hanging in the air, the faint echoes in the dome, the audible hush – these were, for him, the atmosphere of an entire world. He had been baptized in this church and had never worshipped in another. Its every detail was so deeply embedded in him that he could not have Imagined life without it.

A quiet and dignified man, in his late forties, he was accustomed to living his life without attracting undue notice. In fact, he preferred it this way. If there had been any other parishioners present in the church, they would have felt little inclination to wonder why he was there, still less to approach him. He sensed that his relationship with God was much the same as his relationship with his fellow human beings.

He knelt, made the sign of the cross, and began to recite the prayers that were habitual to him. He said them mentally, carefully, trying as best he could to mean each word. It was a rare thing for him to experience any feeling connected to prayer, and indeed, if he had wanted to recall such scattered incidents, he would have had to reach back many years in search of the most recent memory. It did not matter to him. Emotions, he was certain, were unreliable and irrelevant to the labor of religious faith.

The Father's Tale
by Michael O'Brien

Nevertheless, on this particular evening, an errant mood took hold of him. Perhaps because he was tired and feeling the weight of his solitude, his attention drifted and the formal prayers fell silent. At any other time, he would have reengaged his will and resumed praying, but for some reason he could not. He bowed his head and rested his forehead in one hand, remaining motionless for several minutes without a single thought or image occupying his mind. Eventually he stirred and sighed.

"I think", he whispered to the Presence in the tabernacle, "my life is over."

He did not expect a response, and he heard none. He was not pessimistic by nature, nor was he prone to depression, and so this vague sense of termination, or completion, was not the result of morbidity. He had no desire to die, though it must be said that he was not excessively attached to life. Since the death of his wife some years before, and the departure of his two sons to college, he had become less and less connected to other human beings. He had been a virtuous husband and a conscientious and affectionate father, though a somewhat distracted one. And now the life of his small family had reached that phase when its form begins to be absorbed into the larger community.

He missed his deceased wife very badly at times, but there was no bringing her back. He missed his sons, but they were launched into the world, busily making their own lives. They would revisit Halcyon from time to time, but the law of return, he knew, was not eternal. He supposed that, for his sons, home now represented a fixed node in a wheeling universe, an anchor, or a kind of icon they occasionally touched and perhaps even reverenced, as one respects a tradition that had once been useful but has lost its mystique. They loved him, yes, but their temperaments were those of a different generation – active, enthusiastic, plunged into the stimuli of life in a way that he had never been. Thus, he was alone. That he had loved, and loved with a measure of sacrifice, he did not question. He had given them what he had to give. But he now felt some regret that he had not known them as well as he might have. Nor had they understood him, for he was a relatively silent man, bookish and dutiful.

He wondered if the old time bomb in his chest was nearing its long-expected detonation. For more than thirty years he had lived under its threat, and to tell the truth, he had long ago ceased to be worried about it. Was this sense of impending finality a hint from God? Get ready, Alex, tidy your books, make the last notations in your records, for the account is about to be closed.

Looking up at the tabernacle, he said, "Do whatever you want with me."


On the following evening, Halcyon prepared for a winter's sleep beneath a sky turbulent with spiraling stars and jets of green aurora borealis. The hundred gabled rooftops of the old town core were merry with icicles refracting the Christmas lights that had appeared on homes and shops during the past week, competing with the luminous sky. The air was completely still, and the smoke from chimneys rose straight up into darkness. When occasionally a car passed slowly along icy Main Street, its tires would whine, mingling with the laughter of boys making their way home from the town rink with hockey sticks and skates dangling from their shoulders. Few other people were out on the sidewalks, it being after eight o'clock and the region groaning under an early cold snap.

Braving the arctic air with a determination – and pleasure – that was uncharacteristic of the populace as a whole, Alex came out onto the steps of the old brownstone that was his residence and place of business, locking the door behind him. Though it was his habit to keep the lights of his bookshop burning and the door open to nocturnal browsers until ten o'clock each night – Sundays excepted, when it was closed all day – he had been possessed by a desire for an early walk beneath the stars. He now stood for a few moments, buttoning the toggles of his dark blue naval parka, tightening his scarf, pulling fur-lined gloves onto his fingers. Hatless (he disliked hats), though protected by a shock of once-blond hair threaded with strands of gray, he felt the first sting of the subzero temperature on his ears, a sensation that invigorated rather than dissuaded him.

As he surveyed his neighborhood, he thought, as he had done countless times before, that there was no place on earth as lovely as Halcyon. This peculiar loyalty was due in part to the fact that he had rarely traveled beyond the town and the back roads of the surrounding hill country, which offered circuitous rambles that always returned him to the exact center of the world. Indeed, he had never traveled farther than Toronto, a two-hour drive to the south. He had visited there only once in his life and had not been afflicted with a desire to repeat the experience. He had been born in Halcyon, as had four generations of his forefathers, and he considered himself fortunate because of it. If his life had failed to be entirely placid, he was thankful that his troubled years, now fading, were more than outweighed by the years during which he had known much happiness.

Alex inhaled sharply, avoiding the lure of certain memories, and turned his attention to the scene before him, a sight that always reassured him that although life was imperfect, its cardinal rule was the preponderance of order. His shop was situated on a quiet avenue a minute's walk from Main, close to the highest point of town, from where one could view most of the roofs and all of the encircling hills. On distant hilltops a few sparks from solitary farms could be seen. Their snowcovered fields shimmered under a rising moon, bordered by black stands of conifers and the paler lacework of deciduous woods. The town itself sat on a bluff in the valley of the Clementine River, at the big bend where a dam had been built in the early 1800s. The heavy stonework had not crumbled and the sluice gates remained in operation, but the gutted ruin of the gristmill that it had once serviced – Halcyon Grain and Feed – and around which the town had grown stood as a silent reminder that times had changed.

He blew a few puffs of frost and felt a moment's surprise when sparkles of color materialized in the microscopic crystals of his breath. He smiled and thought to himself, There's always something new. I've lived for more than four decades, and never before have I noticed this.

He stepped down onto the sidewalk and blew more puffs, this time directly toward the brighter lights of Main. Again and again the sparkles appeared, shimmering, falling in slow motion until they dissipated.

He was so intrigued by the phenomenon that he failed to hear approaching footsteps.

"You all right, Alex?"

Looking up, he saw Maria Sabbatino standing three paces away, frowning.

'I'm fine, Maria. I was watching lights in the frost."

"Oh", she said, her large black eyes peering at him from under a fringe of silver hair, chopped down to bangs. Her eyebrows, thick like a man's, were joined in consternation, her expression suspicious above two round olive cheeks inflamed with plum red – the identical twin sister of a portrait in the book on Pompeii.

"Alex, you have supper tonight? You eating?"

"I had supper tonight, Maria. I'm eating."

"Maybe you drink too much today, no?"

"No drink today, Maria."

"Please, Alex, don't drinka too much, you go for the walk and you fall down nobody see you and you freeza ta death. That's okay for you, maybe you go to heaven, but thinka da boys, thinka da peoples who cry over you coffin, eh?"

Alex smiled, then chuckled.

"How come you laugh? It'sa no joke you fall down freeza ta death!"

Hoping that it did not sound patronizing, he chuckled again – not because of her dialect, and certainly not because she was something of a figure of fun in town, but because of the absurdity of her notion that people would cry over his coffin.

Who would cry over my coffin? he wondered. Only those who drink a too much from the keg of emotional indulgence. Those who are addicted to the pleasures of Grand Mourning – the funerary bargain hunters!

He did not intend these thoughts unkindly, and they contained not a trace of self-pity. It was merely his habit mentally to correct the false assumptions that people were forever uttering in his presence, and, of course, the assumptions that appeared from time to time within his own mind.

"Maria, look at this." He pointed to the lights of Main and blew a cloud of frost. "Have you ever noticed those sparkles before?"

She shrugged. "I never see it before. So what, Alex? So, you got sparkles. Can you cook sparkles?"

She threw her right hand up in a gesture that might have been intelligible to her countrymen and that perhaps expressed a willingness to probe deeper into mysteries as long as she retained her rights of cynical caution and severe maternal disapproval. Alex knew the gesture well, though he had not succeeded in translating it perfectly during the months Maria had worked for him during Carol's final illness. He had supposed it was part of a deaf-and-dumb alphabet, a kind of visual code that was useful in discussions about fate, death, wages, pasta recipes, and the subterfuges of teenage boys. It was so flexible that it could mean, alternatively: It's a mere nothing; it doesn't matter! It breaks your heart, so what can you say! Ha, I've seen it all before! You can't fool me! Life is a bad business! You think I'm stupid; don't waste my time! et cetera. To the unfamiliar eye the gesture could seem dismissive, but it was intended, he supposed, as a mode of intimate communication. It could be read properly only if one had learned the lexicon of facial expressions and tones of voice that accompanied the precise, swift lash of the upthrust arm, palm open, resignation and protest linked in uneasy union, the distinctive product of millennia of Roman life (the empire, not the city, for he knew that Maria was from the impoverished south, the dry hot hills of Calabria).

Alex, Anglo-Saxon Celt that he was, had not yet decoded the lexicon. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to learn it, for in the alternative language of shared suffering, which almost always has a limited vocabulary, they understood one another quite well. He was grateful that Maria was his neighbor and fellow parishioner – and rescuer, for once, several years ago, she had saved his life. She had stepped in when everything fell apart, had become the cook, the household organizer, the chief scold, the petty tyrant of the kitchen, and in unguarded moments, a mourner. He had surprised her as she was weeping in the pantry one day. "Povera, povera Carolina!" she had sobbed. "Poor boys, no mama, no mama!" Gut-wrenching, cathartic. Cathartic most of all for the three stoic males who had until that moment held their pain within, resigned to their fate. Maria's wildly extravagant sobbing had driven Alex and his two sons to the privacy of their bedrooms, where each, in the company of his own memories, gave in at last to grief.

"Christmas shopping?" he asked, pointing at the large paper bag in her left hand (the right was always kept free for gestures).

"Sė, I finda something fora Paolo. Nice scarfs and a mitt. He no need, but he come home sometime for visit. Then he need!"

Paolo, her son, more idolized and more anguished over than a dissolute fifteenth-century Florentine prince, was a computer analyst in a place that Maria referred to, in tones of disdain, as "Valle Silicone", California.

"And for Bruno, I getta dis."

For the first time Maria smiled, and though it would have seemed a grudging smile to all who did not know her, Alex knew that it was a veritable outburst, containing fountains of affection and tolerance. On the scale of her emotional life there were no blocked-out zones, but histrionics were reserved for the funerals and weddings of those who were only loosely connected to her. Her deepest emotions were almost entirely interior.

She showed him a plastic bag full of leather and wires.

"Electrica worka glove!" she said triumphantly. "Batteries included. Forty-nina ninety-five! When he worka night shift on da track, he no freeza da hands." Speaking with animation, she tore open the plastic wrapper and was preparing to demonstrate how the battery pack could be affixed to a coat sleeve by Velcro straps.

He stopped her – no, no, no – laughing. "It's too cold, Maria. Show me another time."

"Ecco! Okay, okay, maybe another time. You come our place after Midnight Mass, have a cicchetto da vino, and Bruno show you da glove."

As she rewrapped her gift, he looked down fondly at her head, capped with a bowl of imitation leopard fur, and felt an irrational desire to lurch forward and hug her clumsily, to kiss the top of her head – a filial impulse that would have distressed and confused her. He did not give in to it.

The repacking completed, she looked up, squinted, and said in a threatening voice, "You hear from those boys this Christmas? "

"Not yet. I expect they'll send cards."

"Children! We breaka da body for them, breaka da soul, cry da guts out, give everything, and wadda we get?"

"Grandchildren?" Alex suggested.

"I tell you what we get, we get they breaka da heart!" She thumped her chest with her gesturing hand.

Alex nodded sagely, murmuring, blowing smaller puffs, without sparkles.

"Alex," she said, changing tone, peering at him shrewdly, "Carolina, she's a gone, how many, five years now?" With a philosophical air, she made a small sign of the cross on her chest.

He nodded again, uncomfortable.

"It's a time you find a gooda woman, marry ina church before God, she look after you. You need somebody look after you. Looka dose ears! You don't find somebody pretty soon, Alex, you gonna stand ina street every night blow sparkles and dey take you away in ambulance to hospital for da matto-pazzo peoples!" Circular motion at her temple, made with the revolving fur mitt of the right hand.

"Matto-pazzo? Ah, you mean crazy."

She nodded somberly. ", crazy. I know you not crazy, Alex, but tonight I see you stand out ina cold, stare at nothing, blow cloud of the mouth and see sparkle. Maybe somebody don't know you, he think – matto-pazzo!"

"That's if I don't fall down and freeza to death."

She slapped his wrist with the right-hand mitt. "No joke about it! Think about what I say."

"All right, Maria, I'll think about it."

She went away up the street, a hunched sixty-year-old, not quite five feet tall, with sun in her blood, bundled against the numbing dark of the unnatural New World, worrying about anything and everything. He was touched by her concern but knew he would not consider for a minute her suggestion, the panacea offered by maternal hearts whenever they encountered the tragedy, the scandal, the gash in the cosmos created by an unattached male. No one could ever replace Carol. That part of his life was over.

Turning away from the glow of Main, he walked up Oak in the direction of the crest, where the spires of three churches formed the crown of Halcyon. The tallest of the three was Saint Mary of the Angels, a neogothic dream of pale rose stone and masterful stained glass that drew upward everything in its vicinity. Saint Paul's Anglican, modern, steel and glass, was on the opposite side of the street. The monolithic Findley Memorial United, red granite capped by a crenellated war tower, was half a block farther along, beyond which the avenue began to descend again in a long arc that girded the bluffs and eventually led to the river.

As he approached the grounds of Saint Mary's, Alex paused momentarily at the walkway leading to the front doors. Recalling his prayer of the day before – Do whatever you want with me – he wondered at himself. Surely that was precisely what God always did with his creatures. Why, then, had he felt the need to state the obvious? What had he meant by it? What had he been asking – if indeed he had been asking anything? Well, it did not matter, because the odd mood that had precipitated the prayer was now gone.

The muffled strains of a choir practicing Christmas carols hung in the air. It grew suddenly louder when the front door of Saint Mary's opened and two figures stepped outside, a teenage boy and a small girl. They skipped down the steps and turned onto the sidewalk ahead of him, where they broke into a run. He noted their poor clothing and their anxious faces as they passed. They disappeared hand in hand around a corner onto a cross street, heading toward Lowertown and the river. He did not recall having seen them before and supposed they belonged to one of the new families that had moved into the rent-subsidized housing the county administration had built last year at the foot of the bluffs.

Blowing more puffs, he moved on.

Although most of Alex's life was preoccupied with scholarly pursuits, with polite literary exchanges with customers, with keeping accurate financial records in his shop, and with the deflection of irrational assumptions, he did occasionally indulge in musings that verged on the poetic, or at least the dipping of a toe into erratic streams of consciousness. These lapses never overwhelmed him or possessed him but were rather carefully chosen moments of intuition. They were not productive in the sense of genuine creativity, for he was not a poet or painter or musician, but they were useful in that they provided him with a kind of relaxation of the mind. Other men took to drink or verse, or worse, but Alex would lock the door of his shop and set forth to wander at random in the dark hills that were as familiar to him as his labyrinthine bookshelves and the hyperion heights of the town. These small exercises in imprecision, in imitation of abandonment, kept him supple.

Maria Sabbatino was wrong in assuming that he, like many a widower, had taken to drink. In fact, he never felt the desire to drink, and when he shared his single New Year's Eve toast with Father Toby upstairs in the parlor above the shop, it was always poured from the same bottle of amontillado, recognizable by its label: a red crusader's cross emblazoned on a gold shield surmounted by a tiny three-dimensional chalice embedded in the black Spanish glass. The level of liquor in the bottle was a little lower each year, a detail that Father Toby commented on with dry amusement. And that was that. See you next year, same time, same place, same bottle. Five years ago, three weeks after Carol's funeral, Maria had surprised him one morning as he upended a bottle of Seagram's whiskey that had belonged to his father, glugging down a throatful, hoping it would ease the killer bite of anguish. It didn't. Its only effect had been to convince Maria that he had a drinking problem, an assumption from which she would never thereafter be dislodged.

Oak crested and began to descend. If he followed it another eight blocks, he would come to the edge of town at the bridge over the Clementine, which would take him into the north hills, his favorite walk, two hours more or less, depending on the weather. But for some inexplicable reason, he felt a desire to take his least favorite route, which was straight down the bluff to the gristmill dam, across the dam's walkway (treacherous but exhilarating), and up into the escarpment through Dogpatch Run. The Run or Dogpatch, as it was known locally, was officially named Wolfe's Ravine Road, but its more unflattering title derived from the cluster of decrepit buildings, many of them clapboard houses and sheds built in the 1800s clinging to the sides of the gravel road that climbed the ravine. Mill workers and river men had once lived there, but its golden era was long over. Many of the buildings were now empty, and those that were not soon would be, for the relief housing across the waters in Halcyon was irresistible.

The Run's attraction was that it took him to the top of the escarpment at a point where he could see beyond the bend of the river and watch it wind away through the hills to the south, in the direction of Lake Ontario. Moreover, from that height, and that height alone, one could look down upon the whole of Halcyon, which at night became an encrustment of fiery jewels, resting on the shadowed collar of a beautiful recumbent woman, sleeping in her gown, its white satin folds modest and elegant but stirring. In summer the gown was green. As a young man he had often gone there in order to feel the sharp sweetness of longing for the mysterious feminine principle, an ache that would have translated itself into the customary social skills, the elaborate plots and schedules of courtship, if he had not been so abysmally shy, if he had not been an only child, if he had not been the heir to a family tradition of eccentricity, if he had not been the magistrate's son. As if that were not enough, he had spent two years of his early adolescence in bed, recovering from the ravages of rheumatic fever. In those days the disease damaged the heart, they said, and the only cure was total inactivity. During convalescence, he had plunged deeper into the world of books, and remained there. Thus, what might have been a transient state – a young man's diffident temperament – became his permanent form.

Later, Carol came into his life like a miracle, changing him at the core, kindling a fire on the hearthstone, though the architecture of his personality had already set. He was essentially an introvert, a structure erected with skill and patience by master craftsmen, with solid wood doors that locked and windows that could be shuttered instantly, permitting no passers by a view into the interior. Yet the heart continued to beat, the coal glowed. If there was now no longer any fuel to throw onto it, Alex was not greatly dispirited by this, for he was content with his life. His one wrestling match with despair was over, the memory of it fading, leaving only residual marks. It was necessary to guard against any recurrence, however, any vulnerability to the killer bite. For even the most cursory glance at the human condition provided ample evidence that no ordinary murderer was at large. A serial killer was on the loose, and the heart was his preferred target. The heart was the most exposed organ of all.

Even so, Alex was not so enclosed within himself that he presumed upon any kind of absolute security. He knew that a guarded existence, even the apparent serenity of a bibliophile's life, was no sure defense. You must remain flexible, he told himself, to a degree – as much as you can. He knew that if he did not, he could easily atrophy in middle age, shrink, shrivel, and calcify into a gnome in a Dickensian shop. Become the old curiosity itself. If, instead, he walked abroad upon his own familiar high moors, he would see vast landscapes and keep muscle and heart and mind alive to the possibilities in an infinitely large and surprising universe.

Turning off Oak, he went down the steep incline of Tamarack (avenues were deciduous, streets coniferous), going slowly, digging in his heels with each step to avoid a fall. Arriving without mishap at the riverside road, he turned left and walked a half block upriver toward the dam. There, at the valley's narrowest point, the river was only thirty or forty feet wide, its waters accelerating for the rush through the gorge and over the lip of the dam, thundering onto the rocks below. Nearing the steps to the catwalk, he heard high-pitched shouts but paid them no heed, assuming that children were making noise at the skating rink down the road. The roar of water pouring over the dam's spillway muffled all other sounds. As he mounted the steps of the catwalk, he glanced down to his left, the high side of the dam, expecting to see only the semicircle of ale-brown water in front of the sluice.

Two children were in the water, their mouths opening and closing in inaudible screams. They were clinging to the edge of the ice on the town side. One of them had the other under an arm, and both were pawing frantically at the ice shelf, trying to grab hold, but chunks kept breaking off, and in the second or two of stunned horror during which Alex stared at the scene, they slipped closer to the sluice gate, pulled by the current.

If it had been summer, they would have gone over. But the current was weaker at this time of year, the water level low, though he estimated that at their position it would be over their heads. He leaped from the catwalk, dropping four feet, landing in snow, and struggled with all his might toward them. He could hear them now, a high-pitched wail from one mouth and cries from the other.

"Hang on, hang on!" Alex called.

He burst over the snow hump at the edge of the river and sprawled facedown across the ice. It made crackling-splintering noises beneath him as he struggled out of his duffel parka. They were at least ten feet away, and their faces turned to him: a young girl screaming in gulps, an older boy gasping, "Help! Help!"

''I'm coming! I'm coming!" Alex shouted. "Hang on!"

Their eyes were wild with terror, spray frozen on their faces and clothing. Alex slid his body toward the edge, trying to get close enough to fling the parka to them, hoping to use it as a rope to pull them to safety. Moving forward slowly – a few inches, six inches, a foot – he prayed for time. He flung the parka, but it thudded on the ice just short of the boy's frantically grasping right hand. A chunk of ice broke away under him, but as he scrambled for a grip on the shelf he did not let go of the girl.

With his elbows and knees, Alex pushed himself forward, then threw the parka again. This time the boy's hand grappled it. Alex pulled hard, but the weight of the children was too great. He needed to get closer. He thrust forward once more, expecting to slide, but instead the ice buckled under him and he plunged beneath the surface.

The shock of the cold water stunned him, and in the sudden darkness he felt for a moment that he was losing consciousness. Kicking hard, he resurfaced, pushed away the chunks of ice floe, and lashed his way slowly toward the children. The tug of the current increased as he approached them, and his legs were dragged downward. His boots hit the rocky bottom of the riverbed. The water level was just above the sternum of his chest. Three feet away the children's eyes were rolling, and the boy's arm was sliding off the shelf again, a body length from where the river plunged over the dam.

Alex forced his dead legs to move, one step, another. Another. The water level was now at his neck.

The boy let go of the ice just as Alex half-swam, half-leaped between him and the dam. Grabbing the children's arms, he swiveled around toward the shore, dragging them after him. Straining his toes downward, he searched with his feet, hoping to touch a stone, a submerged log, anything that would give him purchase. Without warning, one leg refused to go down full length; it no longer had any feeling, and he did not know if it had cramped or had hit something on the bottom. He pushed with his hips, and his body was propelled forward. The dead weight of the children followed with agonizing slowness.

Close to the shore he stood upright and found that the water was just above his knees. The ice shelf shattered before him with every step. Shaking uncontrollably, numb in all his extremities, he pulled the girl into his arms and staggered toward solid ground. He dragged her onto the shore and laid her down on the snow, then turned back for the boy, who was gasping loudly, trying to rise on all fours. Alex grabbed him around the chest and pulled him up, and together they staggered out of the water. As he fell to the ground, Alex saw people running toward him; he heard car horns beeping, doors slamming, shouts, cries; and in the few seconds before he closed his eyes, he saw galaxies slowly revolving in the open places that are high above the enclosures of the heart.


In his sleep he dreamed of light, and the light became a presence. And the presence became a voice.

You must go back, whispered the voice. You have work to do.

He opened his eyes and saw a white room and white lights, and Father Toby with a purple stole around his neck, and a doctor standing beside him with a stethoscope on his neck.

"Alex!" Father Toby's mouth opening and closing until the sound merged with his lips. "Alex, can you hear me?"

"He's back, Father", the doctor said. "It was a close call, but he's going to make it."

Later, he awoke and saw Father Toby in a chair beside the bed, reading a magazine, his legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Down the hall beyond the open doorway, a red exit light shone and people dressed in green uniforms passed briskly back and forth.

Alex's body was connected by wires to machines that beeped regularly. His lungs ached and bubbled, his face hurt, his hands throbbed, screaming in pain. When he lifted them, he saw that the fingers were bandaged.

"Oh!" he croaked.

Father Toby looked up, and seeing that Alex was awake, he pulled his chair close to the bed.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Michael O'Brien, O.P. "Prologue & The End of His Life." Prologue and an excerpt from chapter one of The Father's Tale (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011): 9-31.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press.

THE AUTHOR

 
Michael O'Brien, iconographer, painter, and writer, is the popular author of many best-selling novels including The Father's Tale, Father Elijah: an apocalypse, Strangers and Sojourners, Eclipse of the Sun, Plague Journal, Sophia House, A Cry of Stone, The Island of the World, and Theophilos.

Copyright © 2011 Ignatius Press




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