by Don Stoll
Father James Thayer was more thrilled than anyone could have known to come back to Massachusetts. He was thrilled in particular by his specific destination: Cravemoor Abbey. Cravemoor was located in the far western reaches of Massachusetts and therefore almost in New York. Indeed, it was in the far northwestern corner of the state and hence practically in Vermont, closer to Bennington than to Pittsfield. The priest needed New England because he’d had more than enough of the Sultanate of Oman.
In Oman, the priest had made great strides in improving Catholic/Muslim relations. He had gone at the special request of his Archbishop and his service had not disappointed. But his daily reports had made clear both the challenges of his mission, which might have overwhelmed anyone, and his personal struggles with the climate of the Arabian Peninsula.
“Thank you so much for the opportunity to perform this valuable service to the faithful,” Father Thayer had told the Archbishop upon his return.
He had smiled broadly at the members of the Archbishop’s entourage.
“And thank you for complying with my request for a gift in recognition of my service.”
Knowing precisely what it contained, he opened the box that the Archbishop had handed him. He extracted a heavy winter coat, a woolen scarf, and an Aran sweater. He tossed the scarf loosely around his neck.
“If we were outside, I’d get down on my knees and kiss the snow,” he said.
He waited for the laughter to die.
“Seriously,” he continued, “the difficulties I had with the heat in Oman provoke me to some well-deserved praise of the people who have no means of escape from that climate. Only a strong, resilient people could endure those conditions. Their possession of those qualities and their profound devotion to faith as they perceive it suggest that they’ll be worthy partners as we press ahead toward the Archbishop’s—and the Church’s—goal of strengthening the bonds of peace and friendship among all human beings.”
The words were variations of words he’d spoken scores of times in Oman, to scores of audiences. The enthusiastic applause was no more than what he’d gotten used to. Yet it thrilled him, anyway.
He was even more thrilled to have returned to Massachusetts. He was more thrilled than anyone knew because in addition to his highly visible service to the Church, while in Oman he had also performed private acts that he hoped would never become visible to anyone other than the young women who’d been his partners. Or at least he tried to persuade himself that they had been his partners. Evidence of their willing participation in his actions had been sparse.
Father Thayer remained shocked by the weakness of his character that had emerged in Oman. Prior to his time there, his moral record had been unblemished. He had expected to maintain that record. But he’d found that there was something about the young Arab women in their black abayas, which revealed so little of their appearances, that awakened in him an irresistible urge to see the whole, and, having gone that far, to take possession.
He had been horrified no more by the emergence of his lust than by the discovery of his ruthlessness. He had found that he possessed a gift for detecting the most vulnerable victims: those young women most susceptible to the threat implicit in his spotless reputation, the threat that accusing him would lead to the ruin of the young woman herself. More than once, he had ended his pursuit of a young woman of surpassing beauty upon discerning in her an immunity to the intimidation on which his conquest of weaker victims relied.
Father Thayer was thrilled to have returned to Massachusetts because he saw in his home state a chance to return to the home of his true self. He saw a chance to renounce the monster he’d been in Oman and to return to being the paragon he had been for decades.
How better to ensure a return to himself than to have committed to spending two years at Cravemoor Abbey, where no member of the female sex had ever set foot? Cravemoor offered not only cold, but isolation. At Cravemoor, he would escape both the heat of passion and the opportunities for friction between bodies that dominated his memories of Oman.
If the drive of some five hours from Boston to Cravemoor seemed like the longest of Father Thayer’s life, that may have been because it was long. Before his devastating experience in Oman, his masculinity had expressed itself in tertiary sexual characteristics, including passion for violent sports such as boxing and football and devotion to manly pastimes like fishing. Yet his masculinity had never been more prominent than when he was behind the wheel of a car. His driving record was marred by the black marks that attached to a handful of speeding tickets. The tickets represented a fraction of the times he’d been stopped and cautioned to drive less aggressively. He owed a debt of gratitude to his clerical collar and dignified bearing for the many warnings he’d received in lieu of citations.
Yet on the December day when he set out from Boston for Cravemoor—on a date that fell technically within the confines of autumn, but that one might have construed as a textbook illustration of winter—the weather discouraged speed. In the morning at the airport, before meeting the Archbishop, he had asked the young woman behind the Hertz desk for “your fastest car” and she had laughed. Then she’d realized that he wasn’t joking. She had suggested that the conditions weren’t meant for speed and he’d answered, “Your fastest car will suit me fine, dear.” But the young woman had been right. The priest needed five hours for a drive that in the past, on clear days, he’d completed in under three.
However, the need to keep a light foot on the gas hadn’t disappointed him. Almost at the start of his drive he’d forgotten his hunger for speed and been sated instead by the beauty of the heavy and ceaseless snowfall. He often sobbed as he crept, in the only Mustang the Hertz woman had been able to find for him, through this incontrovertible reminder that he had come home. As he approached the Abbey, he anticipated that his arrival would be the most jubilant he’d ever experienced.
When he stopped in front of the imposing gates, after calling ahead to ask for someone to admit him, he was greeted by a shivering soul who identified himself as Brother Pham Duc Huy.
Through chattering teeth, the young man added, “Call me ‘Hi,’ as in ‘Hi, how are you?’”
“Please call me ‘Jim,’” Father Thayer said. “As in ‘Jim, you look like the happiest man in the world.’ Because I am.”
Brother Hi shook the new arrival’s hand and waved him into the Abbey’s courtyard. He followed the Mustang inside. The priest parked, but didn’t get out of the car right away. He hadn’t expected a hero’s welcome like the Archbishop had given him, yet a small greeting party would have been nice. He reminded himself that darkness and dinner were close at hand. The monks had other things on their minds. The priest opened his door and nearly struck the brother. He saw that the young man’s admiration of the Mustang had distracted him.
“Maybe you’d like to take her to the Pittsfield Hertz for me, Hi?” the priest said. “They’ll give you a ride back.”
“How’s the heater?”
“You’re asking about the heater instead of the horsepower?” Father Thayer laughed.
“I know about the horsepower. But I’d kill for a good heater.”
Brother Hi blushed.
“Figure of speech, Father.”
“Jim. And why’s a heater so important?”
The brother pulled a suitcase out of the Mustang’s trunk. The priest hefted the other one.
“Honestly, Father, I don’t have a right to complain since my room’s next to the kitchen. I get a lot of the cooking heat, but most of us. . . We’re down two brothers since Thanksgiving. We had a nice fall and we used the heat less than we did the last couple of years. But then December brought the cold right when we realized that our heating system is on life support. The Abbott says we can’t afford to replace it.”
Father Thayer thought of his gifts from the Archbishop.
“I’m so happy to get out of the heat that I think you can count on me not running off, Hi.”
They went to find the room assigned to the new arrival. The brother intended to enter the building through the unpretentious single door that was easily accessible from the parking area, but the priest stopped him.
“I’m only good enough for the servants’ entrance?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” the brother blushed. “I—”
“I’m kidding. This door is fine, but. . .”
Father Thayer cast his gaze to the far side of the courtyard.
“I love that one.”
The oaken double door that he wanted to pass through opened into the portion of the building reserved for administrative offices and the Abbott’s modest living quarters. In the nineteenth century, the door had been carved with scenes of the Passion by a Wampanoag Indian, recently converted to Christianity and a kindred spirit of Hieronymus Bosch.
“Gruesome, I know,” the priest laughed. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.”
The brother looked at the snow-blanketed courtyard floor.
“Don’t worry, Hi. You don’t have to like what I like.”
“It’s not that,” the brother said. “But one option the Abbott is looking at to replace the heating system and keep the place from generally falling apart is to sell the door.”
Father Thayer stared across the courtyard at the oaken door.
“Anyway, Father, I’m not sure how good the door is for the spirit of the place these days.”
The priest looked sharply at the brother, who ventured a cautious laugh.
“I just mean that with this place feeling a little empty and so freezing cold. . . Well, it’s easy to imagine things that aren’t there, and those scenes are pretty. . . imaginative.”
Brother Hi smiled.
“Not to say that, purely as a work of art, the door isn’t amazing, Father.”
The brother gripped the handle, but didn’t turn it.
“You grew up in Massachusetts?”
The priest nodded.
“Then maybe you won’t mind the cold,” the brother said. “My whole family, right up to my grandparents, lived in Saigon, so maybe I have a genetic need for heat.”
“Is that how it works?” the priest laughed.
As soon as he was inside, a wave of warm air almost knocked him down.
“Wait while I take off my coat, Hi,” he said.
The wave, rather than passing, had enveloped the priest. He dropped his coat and released the handle of his suitcase. He spread his arms and tried to anchor his feet to the floor, like a man determined to remain upright in shallow but powerful surf.
“Okay, Father?” Brother Hi said.
The priest felt the wave pass.
“I might be getting a fever,” he said.
The brother picked up the coat.
“Airplane’s the best place in the world to pick up a bug,” he said.
The priest remembered that he’d been lucky with his flight: it was half-full, so he’d had three seats to himself. Across the aisle from him, as the plane was being readied for departure, a woman with the lower half of her face veiled also had several seats to herself. Having resolved to change his life, he never spoke to her before drifting off to sleep, which he did with the help of a double whiskey. The drink had been offered by a flight attendant who was keen to placate the passengers, many of whom grew impatient as a mechanical problem delayed the takeoff.
The veiled woman haunted his dreams. Her eyes, made up alluringly—no doubt to hint at the beauty that he thought must be concealed by her veil—refused to leave him alone. When he woke up, early in the flight, she was gone. He wondered why she’d moved since she had looked so comfortable. He got out of his seat to pace the aisles, but found no sign of her. He thought she must have changed her mind about taking the flight. If there was another explanation, he didn’t know what it could be.
He tried again to put her out of his mind so that he could pay attention to Brother Hi, who had mentioned dinner.
“Did you hear me, Father? I said we should get you to your room and tucked in so I can bring you dinner. I’ll ask the cook to heat up some chicken soup from last night.”
“Is there anywhere to sit?” the priest said. “Is there an elevator?”
He should have known whether Cravemoor Abbey had elevators, but he couldn’t remember.
“Your room’s just a few doors down, Father. Take my arm.”
Brother Hi led the priest into his room and to his bed. The priest lay flat on his back while the brother removed his shoes.
“The socks, too, Hi,” Father Thayer said. “I’m burning up.”
The brother obliged and said, “Let me get your suitcase.”
When he returned with the suitcase, he found the priest without his trousers. Father Thayer lay on the bed in his boxers, shirt, and Aran sweater.
“I don’t think I have the strength to pull this over my head, Hi.”
One at a time, the brother took Father Thayer’s arms, raising them into the air so that he could slide the heavy wool up over the priest’s shoulders, elbows, and hands. The brother had an easier time with the priest’s shirt after unbuttoning it down the front. The priest mustered the strength to raise up slightly from the bed so that the shirt wasn’t pinned down by his bulk.
“What a gorgeous sweater,” Brother Hi said.
“A gift from the Archbishop.”
The brother laid the sweater out flat on top of the dresser.
“So many different patterns. Is it bad to hang it up? Should I fold it up in a drawer?”
“Folding might be better,” the priest said. “But I want you to fold it in one of your own drawers. Consider it an early Christmas present.”
With one hand the brother stroked the diamond stitching of the arms. His other hand stroked the zig-zag stitching of the hem.
“I insist, Hi. A lovely Arab custom that I picked up in Oman: giving away a possession that someone has admired. I want to hang onto it since I became a worse man when I was there.”
“A worse man?”
“Never mind. See how the sweater fits.”
The brother took off his coat. He held the sweater up to admire.
“Would you close the door, Hi? I know we’re all men here, but with me in my boxers—”
He stopped speaking. He thought he’d seen a dark shape dart out of sight, as if someone had been watching him from the hallway.
“Could you see if anyone’s out there?” he said as the brother went to the door.
Hi stepped out of the room.
“Not a soul,” he said.
He pulled the sweater on and came back in.
“Very handsome,” the priest said.
The brother approached him with arms outstretched for an embrace.
“Not wise if I’ve got a bug, Hi.”
“You’re right,” the brother said as he stopped in his tracks. “I’ll get your dinner.”
The brother reappeared.
He mumbled, “Sorry, Father,” and shut the door.
The priest realized too late that he could have asked Hi to turn off the light. He extended an arm toward the lamp on the nightstand but couldn’t reach. The effort to prop himself up on his elbow would have been too much. But the light wasn’t glaring. He could simply close his eyes.
He woke up in the dark.
“Hi?” he said, receiving no answer.
“Maybe I wasn’t asleep long. Maybe he came back to say that dinner would take a while.”
The priest knew he’d spoken out loud to himself. He decided there was no harm in it.
“It’s too warm,” he said. “When he comes back, he can open the window.”
He looked toward the window. It was a few feet away. But he remembered being unable to reach the lamp and he knew that getting up to go the window was out of the question.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he thought he saw a shape in the chair beside the window.
“Hi?” he said. “Can you open the window?”
The shape didn’t move. The priest thought Hi must have piled his clothes in the chair.
He closed his eyes.
When he woke up, the lamp was on. It was on the dresser. The nightstand had been cleared to make room for a trayful of food. The chair by the window was empty. Thinking that Brother Hi had put his clothes away, he decided that he might deserve a second Christmas gift.
The priest felt stronger. Rising to a sitting position, he dragged his lower body to the headboard so it would support him. He looked at the food and saw a bowl of the soup that the brother had mentioned. He thought the soup might have gone cold but that it would nourish him, anyway. Though he would have to make an effort to reach, he thought he could do it. He only needed to shut his eyes and rest for a moment. A hand cupped his chin and tilted his head back.
“You’re back, Hi,” he smiled.
He opened his mouth and felt the underside of the spoon slide over his lower lip. He closed his mouth and sucked the soup from the spoon. It was scalding. He spewed the soup across the room, aiming high so that the spray would clear his bare legs. His eyes had opened and he saw that the soup had been fed to him by a woman, naked except for a veil over the lower half of her face. Her body was an intimation of paradise. Her eyes, enticingly made up, promised that paradise was at hand. She grabbed the priest’s boxers and yanked them off.
But Father Thayer had determined to change his life.
“I can’t,” he said as he reached to cover himself. “I’ve stopped that.”
She handed his boxers back and spoke. The priest had learned almost no Arabic. Yet he was astonished to realize that he understood: he ought to find his victims and apologize.
He knew she was right. He turned away from her and swung his feet onto the floor. His strength had returned. He believed this was because he had a purpose. He stood up.
“I’m going to find them and apologize right now,” he said, turning back to the woman.
She was gone.
He pulled on his boxers. They felt too warm. He took them off and left the room.
The temperature had plunged overnight but there’d been no more snow. In the morning, after discovering that Father Thayer had vanished, the brothers needed only a few minutes to locate his naked, frozen body outside the walls of Cravemoor Abbey.
Don Stoll’s fiction is forthcoming in EVENING STREET REVIEW and INLANDIA and has appeared recently in A THIN SLICE OF ANXIETY (tinyurl.com/fy9wer4h). In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) which continues to bring new schools, clean water, and medical clinics to a cluster of remote Tanzanian villages.