Authors: Thomas O'Malley,Cara Shores
When we suffer anguish we return to early childhood because that is the period in which we first learnt to suffer the experience of total loss. It was more than that. It was the period in which we suffered more total losses than in all the rest of our life put together.
Grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends â¦ Some sadnesses are permanent.
The knowledge of reality is a secret knowledge; it is a kind of death.
âW. B. YEATS
Upon a vast, snow-covered plain in the Minnesota wilderness in the late hours of the night, Duncan Bright and Brother Canice sit by the woodstove in the monastery's kitchen with the wind howling through the cracks in the stone and mortar, and the ancient oak and pine joists that hold the slate roof above their heads moaning like an old sleeping animal. The rest of the children will have long been bathed and placed in their beds; there may be an odd creaking or grumbling upon the ceiling wainscoting as they shift and shudder in their halfsleep, but they will be the only two awake, thin slivers of red and orange flame flickering from the woodstove's grate and moving across both their faces in the dark. Brother Canice is a squat, rotund
little man with wispy orange-red sideburns that cover the entirety of his jaws. The rest of his face is shaven so severely and stringently that it shines like a pink, polished stone and Duncan is often surprised he has not drawn blood. On a shelf lined with canned goodsâBristol's peaches, Hammond baked beans, Labrador sardinesâBrother Canice's black Vulcanite transistor radio glows amber, humming lightly with static and the odd pip or squeak, as if it were searching out the void for some signal from the stars.
Tell me, Duncan asks him. Tell me again how I came to be here.
Brother Canice picks at something at the front of his teeth: the sunflower seeds he always seems to be chewing. The flameglow is orange on his yellowed caps, which replaced his front teeth a decade ago; he likes to say that he lost them when he challenged the bishop of St. Paul to a fight when they were both young prelates, but the truth is less rebellious and less heroic and perhaps more beautiful. After being bedridden with influenza for three weeks, he'd climbed the tower's stairs to inspect the bells, to greet them, he saysâhe was responsible for their tone and timbre and when dust and grime built upon them they lost not only their luster but also their pitch. As he leaned forwardâhis face widening and shimmering familiarly in the ancient brassâa novitiate pulled on the heavily wound cottonstave ropes from below and the bell's lip suddenly came up to greet Brother Canice's face with a violent kiss, slicing into his gums and severing his two front teeth at the root. He laughs as he spits seeds. Just like that, he says, just like that. Two resin-stained teeth spiraling down into the darkness of the bell case. Like bloody yellow pearls.
Tell me what you remember, Duncan, he says now.
I remember being born, Duncan says, and God speaking to me.
And what did he say to you?
I can't remember.
Shadows seem to find the narrow lines of Brother Canice's weathered face, until only the regal cheekbones, the large, moist eyes, and
his mouth are visible. His breath smells slightly of wood, a damp teak, as if he's been chewing on bark. Duncan finds it a comforting smell.
And you have no memory of anything else? Brother Canice asks. Duncan shakes his head and Brother Canice grunts and pokes at the grate, stirring the coals with the ornate, cast-iron poker.
This, then, shall be your story.
Duncan looks at him questioningly and although Brother Canice cannot see the boy's expression in the dark, he shrugs. Brother Canice runs his tongue along the gums of his front teeth and spits sunflower seeds into the stove's grate with impressive accuracy. They watch the seeds boil and hiss and pop and then dissolve, and in the hiss of evaporation Brother Canice says: Until something better comes along, Duncan. Only until something better comes along.
Wood is splintering in the woodstove but the room grows cold and the light from the grate dims. Brother Canice shifts on his stool, opens the grate, and a square of orange-colored light pushes back the darkness. As he leans forward to poke the embers and lay another log on the flames, his pale arms and face are turned crimson by firelight. He closes the grate and the room is in darkness once more; slivers of amber light from the grate flickering on his face and sending shadows dancing around the room.
Brother Canice settles himself comfortably against the kitchen wall and sighs. It was the winter of 1970 and there was a terrible storm, he begins, and Duncan closes his eyes and listens to the wood crackling as it burns and the children murmuring in their dreamsleep in the coffin-dark above them. Brother Canice's ancient voice box seems to wheeze in cadence with the wind beneath the window clasps and the sound of the frames shuddering and cracking with shifting splays of ice and the sense of morning still many hours away.
At dusk the sky above the farms and pastureland of Stockholdt, Minnesota, roils as if it were a living thing, twisting and writhing toward the northeastern horizon, where, briefly visible are small
towns, windows glinting nacre in the tallow light, and black ash, yellow birch, and evergreen-lined slopes upon which rust-colored buildings, tin mining shacks, logging camps, and pyramids of dead timber bloom. Above the glacial Iron Range, the sky is a sheet of flat gray steel and the mountains merely an outline stamped upon this background: a picture taking shape, trembling momentarily, and then becoming fixed in its bath of silver halide. Animals, sensing the storm, are still. Not a thing moves. And then at the farthest edges of the sky, a slight undulation begins like a wave far out at sea, and with it comes a slow, rushing blackness as of night. A great wind rises up from the north, and from the deep, leaded bellies of clouds, it begins to snow.
The annual Festival of Lights Holiday Train, a vintage 1928 Great Northern Railway Empire Builder steam engine, leaves Holdbrundt with the first strakes of snow drifting across the tracks, white billows of steam venting from the engine's exchange as the hydraulic rods and pistons stretch and contract and, in ever shortening revolutions, turn the great wheels, and move them forward toward the wide plains of St. Paul.
During the last leg of its four-hundred-mile journey across Minnesota, the train tows two flatbeds upon which bands and other performers have played, three boxcars filled with donated food, clothes, and children's toys, and ten red-and-green turn-of-the century Pullman railcars decorated with wreathes and lit by a hundred thousand miniature Christmas lights. It is two days before Christmas, and meteorologists in St. Paul and Duluth predict a few inches of festive snow covering for those leaving school and work, with heavier snowfalls in the distant mountain and valley ranges of Stockholdt and Thule.
Father Magnusson, who attends this pilgrimage every year from the Capuchin monastery, the Blessed House of the Gray Brothers of Mercy, in Thule, settles into a wide horsehair chair aboard the tenth Pullman and watches the land stretching into darkness beyond the lights of the train, the snow spiraling gently down in shimmering
electric, incandescent light. He imagines how this train must look to children and adults waiting on various closed station platforms along the Holiday Train's route: mere way-stations now, boarded-up grain sheds for local villages and towns, gone the way of the train age itself but for this one night, as the Holiday Train, burning coal from its tender at a rate of one hundred pounds per mile, steams along the old Great Northern Railroad, a hundred thousand miniature lights aglow about its fifteen trailing cars like the bright curving tail of some glorious Christmastime comet hurtling across the snow.