Sunday, June 12, 2011

SEVEN: The Priest

            On Monday Moira's mother arrived from Hawaii with Moira's fourteen-year old sister. Her father came Tuesday “to make the arrangements”, as he said. He met with the president of the college and with Olivia Troute. He left early the same evening. As far as anyone could tell, he and Moira's mother had avoided each other for the six hours he was in town. No one knew exactly when her mother left and none of the students or faculty had seen either parent firsthand. Her father had asked that Douglas Wrythe organize the chapel service which neither parent planned to attend. When Caleb asked Olivia Troute, she said, yes, she had met separately with each and, yes, they had asked Douglas to organize the chapel service, and then she changed the subject.           
The chapel sat in the oldest part of campus tucked away at the top of a rhododendron-banked ravine. It was separated from the old observatory by the Shakespeare Garden, which was planned, planted and maintained by the Falkes Hollow Garden Club since 1874, twenty-two years after the founding of the college. The chapel could be reached by several paths--one along the wooden bridge over the ravine, one that wound through a stand of dogwood and honey locust known as “The Wood”, one that circled the observatory, one that led directly through The Shakespeare Garden—all to illustrate that every part of the campus had a direct path to the chapel, notwithstanding the path might twist and turn and dip and even disorient.
            Caleb arrived early and stood on the stone patio in front of the chapel. The day before, Douglas had asked him to deliver the eulogy. He had spent much of the night working out what he would say. He moved off the patio to look at the rhododendrons and to smoke.
As people arrived, some went directly into the chapel, some stood in small groups on the patio. Caleb saw Les go in and several minutes later he saw Diana with Alexia Farrell. He didn't see Temple. George was having her car serviced for their drive to Granny's house. She would be waiting for Caleb at his apartment at 1:15. They would go to Temple's house and be on the road by 1:30. Besides, she had said, she never cared much for Moira and she couldn't take all that undergraduate mourning in one sitting.
            Olivia Troute arrived with the dean of students. She greeted several people and then walked to Caleb. She was wearing a black suit. She didn't smile as she asked how he was feeling.
            "Fine," he said. "Nervous, actually. This is a first for me." He noticed she was wearing gloves.
"Douglas told me he asked you to speak."
            "I was surprised, but certainly willing."
            "That was good of you," she said, "but as it turns out, unnecessary."
            "Oh? Why?" His cigarette suddenly felt alien, as if he were holding someone's severed finger. 
            "Moira's father was explicit about his wishes. He allowed Douglas to select students to say a few words, but he had already decided who would deliver the eulogy. I'm sorry. I know what this means to you."
            “Is it someone from the college?”
            “It’s a Roman Catholic priest. From town. Someone apparently Moira was close to. It’s time to go in."
            Caleb had stopped breathing for a moment. He nearly fled, but he went in and sat in the back. The morning sun came in through the towering window of stained glass behind the altar. Chaplain Devore entered from a side door and went to the lectern. He offered a brief invocation and then introduced Douglas, who played the cello. Douglas also played as Tammy DeBardeau recited a poem Caleb had never heard. Didn’t anyone else find it absurd that Douglas was playing the cello? Several students spoke, two of whom Caleb didn’t know. He tried to keep his attention on the students as another poem was read, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what Olivia had said. How could he not know that Moira was involved with the Catholic Church in Falkes Hollow? Was this a mistake? Could she have been seeing this priest for all four of her years at Falkes Hollow? My God, the priest might have been her confessor all this time. Caleb gasped for air.
Chaplain Devore was saying, "Father John Nepomucine of Saint Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church of Falkes Hollow will speak to us this morning."
            There was a rustling behind Caleb and Father John Nepomucine strode up the aisle. He was tall. And big. He ascended slowly the four marble stairs to the altar and he stood behind the lectern with the intricate maze of stained glass behind him. His black hair looked like curled waves in a woodcut of a storm at sea. His eyes gleamed in shadows cast by the lights in lamps suspended from the ceiling and his cheekbones and his nose cast shadows on the rest of his face. He stood tall and hulking in his black suit, like a giant raven carved in ebony and left in an alcove of some pagan cave. 
           For moments he stood looking, staring, some people later said even glaring, out at the gathering. At last he spoke.
           "I come here today with compassion in my heart, with sorrow in my bones, and with fear in my soul.” His voice was dark, resonant. He talked quietly, but with the lowest rumblings of storms promised on mountaintops. And was there the faintest trace of an accent? Rumblings on foreign mountaintops?
“When a member of a community dies, the rest of the community must gather not so much to grieve a life lost as to celebrate a life lived. Today we come together to celebrate Moira O’Hare's life. There was music: Douglas played Moira's favorite Bach cello suite.”
How does he know it was her favorite? Caleb thought.
“There was poetry: Tammy DeBardeau recited a poem written by Moira's older brother Ryan junior."
Caleb heard himself gasp. Older brother! Moira had never--
“We tell ourselves that Moira will live as long as we remember her; as long as Jim Bolton remembers that mad October walk along the river bank–“
Caleb nearly called out from his seat, “How do you know these things!”
“--and Amber continues to hear her singing Eleanor Rigby as she bathed—“
“--and so long as those of us who have been touched by her life and have thus felt our lives profoundly enriched--so long as we keep Moira living in our deepmost hearts."
Caleb’s own heart was beating in panic and perhaps hatred.
“But there is fear in my soul. For when the life that is lost is young and the death is death by will and choice, we are shaken, shocked perhaps more elementally than by any other act. During this past week surely we have all asked and have all been asked, Why? Moira's death strikes at our truths, makes us ask again the deepest questions: What does it mean to be human? Why do we live? Why do we live the way we live? Is our life ours to end?”
Caleb wasn’t even sure that the man was actually saying what he, Caleb, thought he was hearing. This man, this priest, this John Nepomucine, had appeared from nowhere. Moira denied the existence of God, didn't she? He tried to remember if Moira had ever defended concepts about God or Christ or redemption or sin. He was breathing shallowly and rapidly. Moira was independent, she was intelligent and sophisticated; she looked at the world objectively even as she was drawn into some of its tangles. She needed no outside help, certainly no traditional religious guidance. And not this bullshit! And anyway, those few times when she found herself in situations that led her to seek another's counsel, guidance--yes intimacy--wasn't it Caleb she came to? She trusted him, she believed in him. He even let himself imagine that a major reason for her staying at Falkes Hollow was because she needed him, relied on him. She never mentioned the parish church, she never told him of Saint Cecilia's or of this Father John Nepomucine. How significant a presence in her life could he and it have been?
           “Moira O'Hare lived with such exhilaration and with such great pain that she touched us all. We shared her with one another in life as we have shared her today in mourning. But each of us mourns as well a private Moira—a Moira known only to each alone. Some of us will be able to share our private Moira with others; but some of us will have to keep our private Moira forever secret. All of us, however, will wonder which Moira it was who decided to take life from the others. With her death, Moira asks us to face the chaos that lies beyond our senses and beneath surface sanity. She compels us to come together and to huddle against the darkness and to protect the fire that holds back the madness lurking just beyond the light."
            Father Nepomucine rapidly descended the stairs and strode down the center aisle and out the door. There were people crying, some openly sobbing. Was it grief? Disbelief? Shock? Olivia Troute sat perfectly still, but Caleb thought her lips had opened a bit.
In his seat Caleb moaned. Who was this man? Why had he been asked to address Falkes Hollow College concerning the death of one of its own, one who was especially important to him, Caleb, and for whom he was essential? Who was this stranger in priest's clothes, suggesting an intimacy with Moira O'Hare that Caleb would not allow? Presuming to help her true friends bridge the gap from Moira alive to Moira dead? And saying confusing, contradictory things. 
There was shame in what had just happened. Something deep within Caleb had been assaulted. Still moaning, he bolted from his seat and ran down the aisle after the priest.
            Temple was standing at the back.
“You came!” Caleb said. “Did you see where the priest went?” and before Temple could say “no”, Caleb flung the door open to sunlight flashing his eyes. He thought he saw a black form turn behind a rhododendron bush on the path that wound around the observatory.
            He ran down the path to where it forked with another that he thought led directly into the ravine. The south wall of the observatory was visible from here. He ran toward it. He heard a crow scrawking above him. When he got to the observatory, he was alone.
            Maybe the priest had gone through the Shakespeare Garden. Caleb turned back to take that path when he saw Temple coming toward him.
            “Miss Troute fainted or had an attack or something,” Temple said. “They’ve called for an ambulance.”
            “Where did that priest go?”
            “I have to get home,” Temple said. “We have to be ready for George. See you in a bit.”
            He left Caleb standing alone on the path.

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