And so begins Father Hoven’s journey back to St. Jude and back to the memory of a time when he was “right out of the seminary and ready to set the world straight.”
The young priest, however, could hardly be prepared for residents of the Minnesota community who harbored in the midst of their devout natures a host of dark secrets and earthy desires.
Father Hoven tells of his early days in their company, speaking alternately with the sweetness of youthful ambitions and the ironic wisdom of old age. His is one of the most delightful voices in American fiction today.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Do you know how I feel?
Put your car up on blocks and floor the accelerator and listen to the engine whine. I’m not going anywhere but my mind is always racing. Most times my forehead is hot to the touch. It’s been that way ever since I broke my hip.
It was the spring before last, a night that set even blood as ancient as mine pounding. The apple trees in the orchard outside my window were in bloom, the pale pink flowers just visible in the dark. The breeze, so soft and warm, carried the sound of cows groaning in their sleep. In the cemetery the lilacs bloomed, their scent mixed with that of grass and the black dirt.
I had tossed for hours, which is nothing new. I get to thinking about who said what and what I said back and what I should have said and then before I know it I’m still staring at the ceiling and it’s three o’clock. That night I turned from my back to my side to my stomach, over and over, a whirling dervish. I prayed. I stewed over old gossip. And then, weighing the odds of falling asleep against the probability of losing my mind, I pulled on my shoes and walked to the orchard, more awake than I had been all day.
The orchard is the quietest place in town, an admittedly fine distinction to make in a place the size of St. Jude. The low-hanging branches and thick leaves and the grass that grows long around the tree trunks—they deaden everything except the wind. The leaves whispered.
In my orchard I know every clod of dirt, every bend of the branches. When a limb breaks I’m bereft. If a sapling survives I rejoice. In summer the red fruit shines darkly in the moonlight, in fall the last brown apples rot into the earth, in winter the trees are black sticks in the snow. I see the orchard in one season and I imagine it in all the others.
I walked among the smooth-skinned trees, through the pasture that ends against the cemetery’s wrought iron fence. The graves stood in the black grass, huddled beneath a grove of evergreens.
Schmitt, Schmabel, Raun, Braun—one German name after another is carved in the stones. They settled in St. Jude because the landscape is Bavarian. The hills roll down into valleys where slow, muddy rivers flow, and the woods grow thick and dark, and the seasons change from the impossibly hot days of summer, when not even the flies can bear to move, to winter nights so cold that the snow screeches underfoot. These poor Germans moved across an ocean to end up in the same place! Now the names slowly erode from their tombstones, and even I have trouble remembering all the faces.
The streetlight died in the apple trees. The moon had not yet risen. I could barely see my feet, but what of it? I know every step by heart. In the night I could look toward the grocer Lieber’s tombstone and see him again, his face scarlet as he unloaded a truck full of melons. When I passed the plot of Mrs. Moon, my old housekeeper, the smell of melting butter rose from the dirt. My memory filled the cemetery, bringing the dead back into the spring night where everything ached to grow. I felt even the worms burrowing under my feet, thousands of worms working through the soil, loosening it for the year’s new growth. Everything felt alive, which was not quite the case.
Two days earlier Jack Thiesen got his arm yanked off while working on a hay baler. He bled to death alone in his barn. His son found him that night, sitting with the mangled limb in his lap and a stupefied look on his face. Jack was laid out at the funeral home, a healthy-looking corpse. I fell into his grave.
Most likely you’ve never fallen into a grave, so stop and consider what I’m saying. There’s nothing halfway about it. The hole is cut straight down and the dirt is black, black, black, and the earth swallows you whole.
I clawed at the grass but that didn’t slow me down. I fell and my hip shattered. The pain was a white light behind my eyeballs, searing. I am the light, that’s what He says. You understand the direction my thoughts were headed. But then the light dimmed and the pain settled into a dull, secular throb. The Lord knows I screamed for help—I screamed until my throat was raw—but there wasn’t a soul to hear. I squeezed the wet clay in my fists and cursed.
The stars swirled above me. A wisp of tree root worked its way into my ear. The moon cut through the narrow slit of sky in my view, and then the night turned black again.
It occurred to me that I was eye-to-eye, more or less, with Jack’s dead wife, who was buried to my left, and Jack’s dead infant, who lay another few feet to the right. I had forgotten just how much bad luck poor Jack had suffered, and I felt much better for remembering.
Years earlier Jack and I stood over the baby’s cradle together, praying for just a thimble of the Lord’s mercy after his infant caught God-knows-what and coughed and cried for days on end. His wife sang the same lullaby over and over, an eerie tune straight out of the Black Forest. She refused to pray, saying it was no use praying to a God who struck down babies. When the melody came back to me at the bottom of Jack’s grave I hummed it, and my eyes filled with tears from the memory and the pain.
I heard Jack’s baby crying. Not just remembered the sound but heard it. Then I heard that lullaby exactly as Jack’s wife sang it, so clear and devilish that it could not have been memory alone. I closed my eyes and saw her again, dry-eyed, burning with love and despair and hatred. The first birds sang, too, and the music filled the night. And me, I lay like another clod of dirt at the bottom of the grave, the root in my ear hinting at the future.
The stars disappeared. The sky turned turquoise. Bright sunlight shone in a halo around a man’s body. The voice I heard was rich and deep.
“What are you doing down there?”
I didn’t see a shepherd’s crook, and the hair seemed awfully short, but there is no telling about these things. I said a quick prayer, repenting for, well, don’t get me started.
When my eyes focused I recognized the ignorant face that looked down at me. “Get me out of here, Tottenberg,” I cried. The young undertaker shouted for help. I wet my pants and fell into a feverish sleep. That day my hip was fit with a new ball and socket.
The minute my Medicare ran out I was transferred to this home for aged, drunk, and crazy priests.
Where was I?
Sch … Schn …? Schnee? Towering drifts of it and me, black-robed and frozen, at the bottom. Feel my fingers—they’re already cold. Circulation, the doctor says.
No, no, no.
Schneider! That’s it. Schneider.
Ha. Every time I yell he’s jolted. His face registers surprise and dismay simultaneously; he looks like a man about to drop from a heart attack. Believe me, I know.
I’ve watched people die from anything you can imagine: women in childbirth, men fallen from steeples, farmers dragged by tractors, and kids pulled from deep water. I’ve knelt beside them all, muttered a few prayers, and felt their souls slip away. Go ahead and laugh, but I tell you it’s true. Most people don’t see enough of death to recognize its finer points. They’re too busy digging for their handkerchiefs to feel the warm shudder of a soul set free.
Now watch Schneider fold his paper and straighten his collar. The boy is as constant as the stars. “Yes, Father,” he says, looming over my wheelchair.
Why exactly did I call him?
I must have had a reason, but I cannot for the life of me recall what it was. The nurses here whisper, “Poor man, his mind is going.” But that’s not it at all. Why should I remember? One day is the same as the next. I sit and sit and then sit some more, staring at the same pack of doddering fools. The distant past is infinitely more interesting than the last five minutes.
Take a look around and you can see what I mean. Old Drake there, his mouth hanging limp, a thread of spittle dripping to his chest. McConnell, who squints through his thick brows and chants naa-aaa, naa-aaa, naa-aaa day and night. Schmidt, whining to anyone who will listen, “I’m for the wind. I’m ready to blow away. I’m for the wind.” And thirty others, all arranged in the day room like potted plants, drooping and drooling and gagging ahead of the television set, all of us tied into our wheelchairs so we don’t ooze onto the floor.
“Father?” Schneider says again. I have to tell him something.
“Drake,” I say. “It’s Father Drake. Close the man’s mouth.”
Drake. Better drool than the nonsense that used to escape from him every Sunday. Old Drake, who pleaded to preserve the Latin mass. Drake, who fought so that his parish could continue to have no idea what he said. I never planned to pity him, and yet I do. These days I don’t look so good myself.
Honestly, I’m nearly as concerned about Schneider. Such a healthy, strong boy! Such a blank face! He’s like a cow, happy to chew over his paper hour after hour. I hate to see him idle. He can move but he’d rather sit. I’m four times his age and there is more energy in my little finger. What I wouldn’t give to have Schneider’s legs! It must be saintly, don’t you think, to force him to use those talents the Lord gave him.
Schneider studies me, studies Drake, then walks over to the wheezing old priest. He places one finger on the tip of Drake’s chin and pushes gently upward.
“Domine patri,” Drake mumbles from his stupor, mistaking Schneider’s smooth cheeks for something less earthly. Cherubim is more like it. Schneider’s face glows with ignorance. Drake falls asleep again in an instant.
Schneider examines his finger. He wipes the old man’s dribble against his trouser leg and goes back to his paper. And I sink deeper in my chair, waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting for what? I search the room full of living dead, looking for another situation requiring Schneider’s attention.