2005 Peder Hill, Dreaming Underwater. All rights
of the black swallow
single white flake of a birch tree floated down through
the rising incense, gliding past the nun’s unfocused
eyes before landing on the brown narrow of her lap. It
pulled Theresa McCabe from her troubled daydreams and
she jerked her head, startled, then looked down and
picked it off her knee, rubbing its fringed wings
between her finger and thumb.
effort to be unobtrusive, she looked up toward the
groined vault of the church’s heavily beamed ceiling,
wondering from where the doomed seed might have come.
other nuns sat with her in the platform of the open
choral gallery. Not fifteen feet in front of them the
priest, Thomas McCabe, Theresa’s uncle, had finished
his sermon, and the fateful talk had already begun. The
wheels scuttled into motion. No way to stop them now.
Bowers, the choir director, jowls spilling over her
white collar, thick round-rimmed glasses the same earthy
umber as her eyes, sat in a folding chair out front the
semicircle of the other seven.
Each had a
worn blue hymnal at the ready. Theresa’s gallery
companions continued staring at the priest with an
unusual wide-eyed vigilance, listening with a measured
concentration to every word he said.
typical even keeled reserve had been tossed overboard
and replaced with a sweet nervous buzz…as if they sat
not in church waiting to sing hymns, but instead at the
dog track before the gun pop—the crowd on edge with
everything about to unfold.
them had noticed the brooding lapse of Theresa’s
attention, or the movement of her lips, or the seed.
herself had already forgotten the winged traveler.
Oblivious to nearly everything outside the reach of her
own internal ruminations. Only a faint shadow of her
attention broke free and drifted across the
church’s adornments and the stain glass cloistered
saints along the church’s wall. Her eyes seeing, but
her mind barely so.
moved in slow pausing arcs across what she could see
from her gallery chair, moved as if searching for
something missing, trying to find something lost.
dull glow of Theresa’s awareness the priest continued,
his deep voice building up to the bold new course they
would all now follow, the old paths soon to be retraced.
Theresa, a crevice of blond hair pulled back against her
scalp by her veil, the soft pools of the skin under her
eyes showing the first spider web shadows of age,
didn’t hear a word. She wouldn’t until, across the
silence of the chamber, she heard the whisper of her
dead mother’s name.
her attention drifted to the communion rail, traced its
sloping baluster legs. Then, one by one, the stained
glass windows strung along the nave’s far wall. Only
the west nave wall had them. On the east wall behind her
the windows still held the original cream-colored
panes—scheduled to be replaced, the moment God willed
searched their colored webs. Shards of glass woven in
nets of steel. Their symbolic language lost on the
uninitiated. Stories 2000 years old.
window directly across the sanctuary from her chair Adam
stood in the garden of Eden. His name spelled above the
green leaves and winding tree boughs in stylized opaque
glass letters the size of his head.
Adam’s right, a gaunt Lazarus rose from the dead, a
group of old men ringed him, watching. Next to these,
windows for Saint Patrick, Paul, Saint Catherine of
Alexandria. Then one of Mary Magdalene. She stood
between heaven and earth, crushing a serpent with a bare
window, near the church’s entrance, stood Saint Peter.
In the image he had a full beard, bald. He held two bony
keys to the doors of paradise loosely in a long fingered
voice inside her tried again to speak up, like a rustle
of leaves in a night forest. Again she pushed it down
the stain glass windows candles glowed from their wooden
cross holdings, their meek light playing off cement
pilasters that rose like Roman Gods from the plain red
brick between the lanky panes.
candles, embedded within the pilasters and casting weak
metallic reflections, silver medallions documented God's
dealings with man. Every few pilasters there would be
other objects pressed in the column—the arrowhead
crown of the Archdiocesan coat of arms, an elaborate
escutcheon or the Society of Mary, bronze plaques with
the initials or names of benefactors.
Theresa’s chair these all looked like black chips in
the cement column. But she knew the colors of the
emblems and identities of the names. The church had been
a second home since she was six.
of sight moved back to the altar, where trails of
incense continued their ascend. Its acrid sweet mixing
with the thick musky warmth of the congregation, the
burning ash symbol of rising prayers.
hung in an arched painting on the wall a few feet behind
it. His distorted body heavy on the cross. The sky
burned an intense red purple behind him. Blood spurted
out and flowed down from the crimson mouth of a cavity
between two ribs. It pooled darkly beside the people who
stood down below. Their heads arched up to him,
watching, their silhouettes like black scarecrows.
again toward the ceiling, and this time got caught on
the three words hammered in the wooden truss above the
Lord Seeth,” they pronounced.
mouthed these over and over. As if in rolling the
syllables over her tongue she tried to remember what
lips stopped, the frail emptiness again took over. Like
falling backwards, she thought. Bleeding with nothing
the sensation in these moments of being a cold dry husk,
her muscle and bone replaced with icy wooden slivers,
the warmth of her blood transformed to vibrating air.
the deacon’s bell chimed; the Saints continued staring
down through eyes the shapes of seeds.
As she sat
in a church, friends and neighbors surrounding her, her
fellow nuns like godly sisters, the incense rising with
its smell of history and the narrow passages of desert
towns, she nonetheless felt as if she sat alone in an
empty hall, crowding all around her the cold slip of
incredible desire came across Theresa, to leave. Some
small whisper of the little voice inside must have
gotten through. Her leg muscles twitched in readiness,
as if wanting to move off on their own then and there.
With her uncle pushing along, his voice rich and
rhythmic. The gallery in stiff repose. Just get up and
shuffle off, sliding past the thick knees of Sister
McAllister, push open the gallery’s half door with its
little peacock carved on the handle. Down the side
aisle; addling past the crowd. Just a trip to the
bathroom is all they’d think. Even a nun’s gotta go
past the white crown of the baptismal fount, leaving
Saint Peter and his empty skeleton keys behind her. Out
the double doors into the steep light of summer. Down
the cracked steps to the maple shaded sidewalk. Away.
been gripped by this absurd impulse more than once
before. As she tried to rid her subconscious of its soft
insistence, her fingers continued to rub the tiny white
wings of the forgotten seed.
McCabe’s strong deep voice spread easily to the
baptismal bath that stood along the path of Theresa’s
daydream. His voice was untypical of a priest bellowing
the notes of his service to the flock. It sounded more
the voice you’d expect from a brother confiding
something personal. A secret voice. Intimate.
however, its tenor had an uncharacteristic thinness to
it. Perhaps, some thought, an edge of alarm. But, as
always, his voice also carried with it the fullness of
purpose. And the rich, resonant embrace of the truth. It
comforted the parishioners and clergy, despite their
uneasiness. Despite the strain in its tone.
Mary’s, the people had brought with them their
uncomplicated dignity and natural reverence for their
church. The women all wore dresses, every man in his
best suit. They were simple, good people, and they
listened now, as intently as the choir. Eyes expectant.
occasional high flutter of children’s voices and
wheezy black lung coughs broke the silence of the crowd.
The hinted at but yet formless proclamation would
lifted his right hand high above the pulpit, fingers
spreading wide at the end of his flowing black robe.
Full of excitement, his green irises gleamed like wet
reach is long,” said the Father. His extended arm
showed this. “It stretches across this world and into
the next. It helps us find our way. With God’s help,
which path will we now take?” As he said this, he
curled his fingers into a fist, and brought it down on
the pulpit like a hammer.
of Leopold struggled between the deep of sleep and the
hope of waking. None of them knew the future. They had
only grim reminders of what might happen. The bleak end
that had happened often enough before.
towns spread across the Pocono Mountains like a
patchwork of despair; nothing left but lines of roofless
huts, bullet holes, spray paint. Whatever brick
buildings still stood lie ragged and crumbling down.
Kids’ broken beer bottles strewn in some, cigarette
stubs, old condoms, used toilet paper. The strange
structures of coal tipples towering over the landscape
like the skeleton ruins of poorly built castles.
mining communities like Leopold.
rotting just north of them. A bumpy 20 minute ride off
the turnpike up a crippled road through the woods. It
sat on the crest of the mountain between walls of fir
trees. A sloping clearing pocked with slumping shacks.
Through the little town’s belly wound a stream crossed
by a footbridge chiseled from the same logs as the
had been poisoned by the mine. It ran bright orange in
places, mixing with the mountain stream’s natural
greenish blue. Maybe that’s how it ended for them—a
poison stream hollowing away their last hope, the
town’s own beginning a poison seed that eventually
pulled it back down to mud and forest.
abandoned town had a church. Roofless, but still
standing. Its ceiling replaced with a steady rectangle
of sky blue. Its pews had long since been removed.
Visitors found, where once the spirit of God moved over
the Mass, now only an empty gallery filled with rotting
timber and dirt, mushrooms growing, the wet smell of
trash. Light streamed through high broken windows,
landing in jags of white in the empty shadows below.
for the altar sat empty now, a phantom pale rectangle
left on the floor in its stead. On the wall behind the
space, a large wooden cross still hung. Left for lost
reasons by those who’d once prayed there. Untouched by
weekend scavenge hunters. Their last shard of respect.
prevented them from becoming another black patch in the
quilt? Their faith shielded them somewhat from these
fears. Mostly. So to did the hope that had been
fostered. Nurtured over years. Wound into the threads of
could feel their identity unwinding. The end of things
scenting in the air. Things would have to change.
you are still hoping the mines will reopen,” said the
Father, at which a wave of grumbling whisper filled the
hall and seven of the nuns leaned slightly forward on
their pews. “With the millions of tons of coal still
buried below us…”
a moment, then let it fall.
grumble strengthened to a roar. Father McCabe waited
patiently for it to die off.
came into the world as a patch town. The roots of its
existence tied to the shimmering black anthracite coal
that laced the cavities beneath the hills and its valley
In the mid
1800’s prospectors working for wealthy Pittsburgh
businessmen had fanned across Pennsylvania, searching
for its high carbon deposits. And in 1868 one had
arrived in the Leopold.
On a crisp
Fall day, as the prospector, Rudolf Panes, walked a
narrow trail that wound up Wilkes Mountain, enjoying the
bright corona of Autumn blazing around him, forest
patches shimmering in oranges and yellows amid the farm
fields in the valley below, he found what he had looked
for in the dirt.
didn’t have to trace the pieces far to find, further
up the incline on an older abandoned trail, the shiny
black wall of an exposed seam.
1869 lawyers for the Susquehanna Coal Company’s (a
subsidiary of Pennsylvania Railroad) had completed
arrangements to acquire the entire valley and the land
along the wooded hills. None of the residents at that
time, grain farmers and cattle herders descending from
the Welsh and English immigrant settlers, could turn
down the money Susquehanna offered.
after the signing of the last deed, in the smooth
stretch of Gayland Hildebrand’s prized wheat field,
the germination of the town of Leopold began.
later, in the area of construction, the wheat had been
cut down and beaten back, relegated to stubborn last
thickets. And along a dirt wagon track pressed in the
rich soil stood instead a little post office, a butcher,
a baker. An empty barbershop, complete with a pole.
Beside these, a 51 room hotel, a massive four-story wood
like everything, by Susquehanna Coal.
spread the open frames of other soon to be completed
stores, as well as the enormous brick stage of what
would soon be a company trading house in which miners
and their families would be able to buy everything from
fruit and potatoes to tailored suits.
five-minutes walk from the storefronts west toward the
river stood two long rows of square plank and clapboard
laborers’ houses. Behind them a few larger boarding
houses on a low bluff that rose toward the hill.
of wooden stakes would mark the other road. A mile down
it another construction site would spin with industrious
life. Men moving everywhere, lifting, hammering. Soon
there would be a powerhouse, carpenter shop, blacksmith
and a machine shop where they stood.
things just preluded the real beginning.
further up the field, the breaker would be built.
Situated above a heavy seam. Ready to fulfill its
namesake and crush the coal that would soon come up to
the surface. The tipple below it, sorting the coal
chunks as they came up. Every sized piece with its own
name; the biggest fed to the machine up above.
all, the mining tunnel would eat into the coal seam
which ran between sandstone shelves in a weaving path,
miles into the earth below.
over 400 men, and boys as young as seven, worked in the
growing hole of Leopold No. 1 mine. The next year
Leopold No. 2 and No. 3 opened further up in the hills,
a half a mile from each other along a ravine known and
the legacy of loss forever intertwined with the mining.
Twelve died the first year—one from a premature
dynamite blast; three from a gas explosion; one crushed
by a wild cart after it had flown off the track, pinning
him into the sandstone; two burned to death in a small
fire; one suffocated after a hoisting rope snapped,
sending material flooding down the shaft. The other four
suffocated as well, buried for half a day beneath tons
of rocks and sand which had fallen when a roof had caved
died the second year. Eight the third; one a curly
haired nine year old, picking slate from the screen room
of the breaker. A girl.
didn’t dig the first plots of what would become the
town’s graveyard within the city limits. Not anywhere
in the valley for that matter. People refused to bury
loved ones too close to the mines. Afraid the white pine
caskets would some day—when a mine shaft finally found
them—fall right through. Spilling half rotted bodies
of husbands, the small bones of their children, into the
black shafts below.
town’s dead found their peace across the snaking wind
of Riker’s Pass in Panther Valley next door—nowadays
just short of a 30 minute drive.
years after the first stake had been pounded into the
field’s fertile soil, the golden undulating expanse of
some of Pennsylvania’s best wheat had vanished. So too
the valley’s strong stands of hemlock, hickory and
birch. Cut down, lathed, pieced into boards and
transformed into 387 buildings. An entire town built to
over 1700 inhabitants had filled the buildings, men
leaving hotels and boarding houses before dawn in oil
suits and gum boots, kerosene lamps swinging in their
hands. They’d leave the mines exhausted, black dust
effigies that blended into the night as they’d walk
the new residents had come overland from New York
harbor, where they’d recently arrived from Europe.
Fleeing from poverty or persecution. Some driven by a
mad restless hunger for adventure.
searching for more.
faces a taut mixture of uncertainty and hope; the sound
of the young town an odd blend of Scottish and Irish
accents, heavy and fresh, and broken English phrases
combined with Polish expressions or Czech words.
the church, many of the faces of those in the pews
resembled those frozen in black and white photos along
their walls and fireplaces—a Grandmother’s mouth, an
Aunt’s high cheekbones, the deep sunken eyes of a
people shared more that just familiar features that with
the lines that led to them. They also shared the
heritage and deep-grained beliefs brought on the boats
by Irish ancestors who’d boarded in the port of Sligo.
July sun filtered softly through the slender height of
St. Mary’s windows. Outside, people had long forgotten
the winter’s ice storms as summer buzzed in full
the townspeople and staff of the college looked for
been six months before, in spite of widespread rumors of
a possible reprieve, just 12 days after Christmas, when
the town’s lifeblood had been cut and let to flow. The
last of the mines had been closed. Shut down and sealed
with three layers of bricks around a thick steel door.
happened even though Leopold boasted The cleanest
burning Anthracite in the World—this still exclaimed
by the old sign outside town.
Susquehanna Coal’s ability to compete had been
whittled away the deeper they’d tunneled into the
earth. The reality of 1961 had grown too far removed
from the world of the town’s beginning. Now oil and
natural gas—cheap and reliable—had become the energy
years before all 24 sections of St. Mary’s blond
wooden pews had been filled. Overflow had occasionally
spilled across the maroon carpet that’s tattered strip
stretched from the church’s entrance to the
sanctuary’s faux marble communion table.
had left. The community’s looser elements. They’d
simply pulled up stakes at the shift in the wind. Filled
up trucks and station wagons and trailers with cloths
and kitchenware, furniture. Sold or donated whatever
wouldn’t fit. Moved on to jobs in New York, the steel
plants in Pittsburgh, or other mining towns that had
changed over to stripping. Disappeared.
last two rows of pews usually sat empty. An emptiness
nobody spoke of, but everybody realized. One that had
edged forward, space by space, month by month.
conversations had gone on and on. During league games at
the alley; rolling from concern-crimped mouths across
the overstuffed waiting chairs at Rory’s Beauty and
Nail; at Sunday potlucks at the American Legion Hall.
With elbows planted out front the cash register of
Leopold Gun and Tackle—“2 for 1 buckshot till the
could nearly always find men stooped in deep discussion
on the sofas that ringed the smoking room of the Irish
Club. People nearly always packed the room. Over 1100
members frequented the Irish Club in town.
peoples’ talk dragged on, hopeless; sometimes
thoughtful, plodding; some of the more imaginative in
the community, following the trail of hints laid by
Father McCabe, drifted toward optimistic dreamy
conjecture. None of which, they would discover, landed
anywhere remotely close to the mark.
drunk talk garbled its way around as well, fueled by 16
bars filled day and evenings with the recently
embittered, enthusiastic, impassioned, buoyant, angry;
on and on it went.
indisputable facts had risen above all the soul
searching and the chatter—things the town had
collectively decided were true and important and should
never be let go.
Leopold would be the only place they could ever call
families’ stories were etched upon the
gravestones—take a trip across the hill to the
cemetery and you’d find the earth filled with a steady
line of ancestors recent and long passed. Many of those
who were still hanging on were from families which
arrived back in the town’s beginning. Many had been
born and grown up in the houses in which they still
lived. They’d nearly all been in Leopold Valley their
entire lives. Some rarely left.
only one place could ever really be call home.
agreed secondly (this second fact related to the third,
though few people made the connection) that in spite of
the bent thinness of the trees that stretched up the
hills on the town’s periphery—regrowth from forest
cut to shore up the mines—they lived in a paradise.
from the hills beyond the town’s edge were the dark
forests of the Pocono Mountains. Thousands of miles of
high green peaks and lush valleys. Creeks swarming in
summer with mayflies and flecking silver with trout,
great egrets thrusting wings to land. Deep blue lakes
filled with bullheads and crappie. Weaving dragonflies.
Circling eagles. Thick conifer forests laced with beaver
ponds and waterfalls.
Endless Mountains is what the Lenape Indians called them
before they were driven away at the end of guns.
one called it, a Garden of Eden grew around them. And a
lush emerald buffer that kept outside influences at bay.
fact, slippier than the others, remained steeped in
history, instilled with myth. Less a fact than an ideal.
Some called it the spirit of the town. Others called it
reason to hold on when all else seemed lost. An idea
strangely difficult to put into words.
outside their little valley continued changing in a
frightening direction. It pressed in on them, reaching.
The life of the spirit slowly eroding as the pace of
life ever quickened.
the innocuous word to describe it, blanketed something
evil. A thing innocently camouflaged by its stream of
nifty gadgets—electric kitchen appliances, reusable
plastic bottles, Velcro, television. All smacked of
newness, the promise of better—must haves in any
carried spun into polyester wings the tools to quietly
erase the world’s spiritual connections, distancing
their souls from God, then finally snipping the thread.
playing the magician; masterfully shifting cards in a
meticulous ruse until all memory of The Father had
assault crept inward at the edge of the senses through
newspapers print and down the rabbit ear wires of
televisions. A patient merging of shadows, a methodical
unwinding of society’s religious mores. Too slow to
notice. Too quiet to put a finger on.
progress could be tracked by the slow march of politics
in sleepless cities far beyond the protective rise of
the mountains ringing Leopold. A steady drum of changing
legislation, each in itself unimportant, but taken as a
whole, a stinging spiritual loss.
connection to God fading as the power of the state grew
restless movement of poison ideas creeping like a river
fog. Anywhere receiving ears listened. Penetrating doors
and windows. Leaving the young people bedazzled, high on
drugs, fucking like monkeys. Rushing around madly, the
God in them lost. The dark bloom of the devil’s newest
modernist plague slipped noiselessly inward, a wiry,
tireless whisper falling upon the weak and complacent in
sleep. Thin black tendrils pushing gently downward,
stroking, stretching slowly, blotting the light out.
Singing and smothering civilization into a Godless
of spiritual collapse were everywhere. Only a fool could
possibly ignore them.
opportunity struck, the devil wasted no time.
people of Leopold were neither blind nor complacent. And
they found themselves luckier than most, in an enviable
situation. For which they thanked God every night in
heritage had been blessed with the strong spiritual
foundation of their ancestors—none of whom had arrived
in Leopold by accident. The Irish Club had carefully
preserved the story of this history in their ledgers.
The tale of the stranger in Sligo. All Leopold’s Irish
knew it by heart.
spite of a world growing decadent and hollow at the
periphery, Leopold’s spiritual grounding remained
intact. For now.
hands they held the tools to keep it: the tightness of
their community, knotted determination, the college.
Possibilities would be found.
forests protected them. They’d all grown up together.
Bound by faith, together they’d make their stand,
relying on the strength and guidance of the Lord.
the church, they’d hear of the hope that had been
hinted at. At 3:35 PM the following Thursday—landing
on time at Pittsburgh International Airport during a
break between heavy showers—it would finally arrive.
McCabe stood upright behind the pulpit, snuck a secret
deep breath. The noise in the church had finally
settled. He began.
mines won’t open again …ever. We’ve known this
would happen…for a long time. It hasn’t been a
surprise.” The Father’s stare pointed around the
room; nearly everybody in the pews felt he’d directly
caught their eye. The room quiet as his voice rung.
spoken with many of you. Exchanging ideas. Praying.”
of emotions complicated McCabe’s face: sadness creased
his gray eyebrows, the threat of a smile flickering in
the intense mouth below.
miraculous the unexpected ways God can help you,” he
another deep breath, one everyone could see.
he’s found just such a way. Something totally
unexpected but also something I’d never given up hope
on. A great surprise. From far away.”
parishioners, trying to fathom the strange talk and
mixed expressions, remained guardedly silent.
go his moorage on the pulpit, walked around front,
wanting to be closer as he spoke. He curled his fingers
into one another.
of you know, St. Mary’s established a mission in
Africa, many years ago. In Nigeria’s Muslim dominated
whispers sparked up anew.
survived. And we find our futures inextricably linked.
hushed voices chopping in quick phrases—exclamations
of surprise or confusion, guesses to where this might
Nigeria twenty two years ago.” The darting smile
vanished entirely now, the face lengthening as sorrow
As a rush
of rising noise gathered, the Father’s voice sped and
strengthened to overpower the clamor. The emotions in
his voice followed the complicated mixture lining his
face. But he also spoke with determination. The
parishioners got the message and respectfully quieted
received both a call for help; at the same time an
answer to our prayers. First I’d like to explain their
McCabe grazed over the miraculous survival of and the
dangers to their previously abandoned mission. But laid
only hint to the breadth of the atrocities conflagrating
around it and their desperate state.
were, after all, small children hunched over in the
pews, crayons in their little hands, drawing pictures,
clouds and mountains. And they were in the house of God.
were more appropriate places to discuss such things.
he’d been leading up to this moment for months. Ever
since the first telegram had arrived from the dark
continent. Ever since his conversations with the group.
spoken at lengths with many of the parishioners and
College staff about the Nigerian mission. Laying the
groundwork for their understanding and support.
the depths of the evil that he now only nodded toward.
He’d filled their ears with his stories.
there were children around, he’d told them of the
harmattan, the winter wind that blew sand off the
Sahara, its fine dust filling the sky like a thick fog.
And of fantastic everyday animals that roamed the
grasslands: the elephants, giraffes, lions, ostrich,
leopards, gazelles. Forests filled with the swinging
movement of monkeys, who followed each other through
established trails in the trees.
there were only adults, he’d told of the brutality.
in Nigeria flared continually like a deep-rooted plague.
It had for centuries. And probably always would.
That’s how it had been when they’d first arrived.
And it had spread wider than ever, or so they’d heard.
been a bold move, those years ago, establishing a
mission there. Not one without storms of controversy.
But Father McCabe’s great uncle had pushed through
like a rooting boar.
skeptics had turned coats when it had thrived in that
inhospitable atmosphere under the long, blue African
sky. Out of respect, and shared sorrow, none had said a
word when it failed.
Muslims fiercely persecuted Christians in the north. The
level of abuse much worse than the Christian leaning
southern areas and the Niger delta.
northern Muslims could be fanatical—mobbing innocent
Christians, breaking windows and looting their stores.
Heavily armed youths setting their houses and churches
ablaze. Shooting them with rifles. Stoning them to
were much worse.
flourished there. Their sects brooding in dusty villages
that bordered the veins of rivers atop the great
Nigerian Plateau. Followings were strong in cities as
religions. Born before enlightenment, nurtured through
ages of ignorance and violence, droughts and pestilence.
Bred in the primitive menagerie of tribal
existence—living by the phases of the moon, feather
clad possessed witches feet pounding dirt, ringing
footprint trails around the fire to the rhythmic singing
of the drums. Warped.
what they called it there. Sorcery. The pagans with
their hundreds of deities. Their priests holding court
in the dark throats of caves.
where they find the bodies sometimes. Victims of the
men and women, children, babies; abducted regularly.
Stolen from fields and forests and waterholes. From
playing with hand carved dolls among the trees.
sometimes from their own bedrooms. Lulled along by the
promise of cigarettes, alcohol. Candy.
sometimes by family friends, or relatives. Uncles. Even
bodies were found—often they weren’t—they were
usually missing their hands, or heads. The blood
gone—spilled on idols of clay or wood. Often the
hearts had been removed. The genitals were usually cut
off, cut out. Especially from the children. The potency
the bodies were found entirely stripped of flesh—the
corpses dusty crumpled versions of images in anatomy
members and priests ate the skin, the genitals.
Swallowed down the small round hearts of children.
Sometimes those of their family.
heinous and unspeakable.
acts performed by malevolent souls reaching out to
supernatural spirits, or hoping for a quick bit of
money, a turn of fortune.
the old religions were so violent. Most weren’t. Just
a bunch of old men dressed in beads, spinning cowry
shells in the sand. No more harmful than the shoeless
girls that populated downtown streets of Appalachian
villages, reading the futures of hapless tourists in the
nobody ever disagreed. Nigeria needed God.
church listened in a grim mood to Father McCabe’s
brief overview of the atrocities swirling around the
little Nigerian mission. As he spoke, they shuttered
with the memories of his stories. More than anything
they wanted to help.
a new danger facing the Mission,” continued McCabe.
“One brought on by Nigeria’s independence last year.
It’s now a country much less open to missionaries. The
faithful there called upon us in this light.”
of the nuns were now shifting nervously to and fro,
pausing straight to take the priest in, then swiveling
here and there as they looked around to gage each other.
Their faces radiated excitement. This moment they’d
Sister Bowers’ head had stopped. She now stared
directly at Theresa. Noticing her distance, the pale
pallor of her skin. The girl looked sick again. No doubt
a bit of shock from the talk of the past and Nigeria.
eyes looked like those of a doe.
race forgotten, face pursed with worry, the choir
director waved brusquely for Sister McAllister’s
attention. Then motioned the oblivious woman toward
won’t forsake them,” said the Father. “We have
offered the help they’ve requested. In their hour of
need we will come; but not to African soil. This time
Leopold, Pennsylvania is where the miracles will
floodgates of hundred of mouths let go a tumult. The
church now sounded more like the echoed waiting room of
a train station. Father McCabe smiled in spite of the
darker currents running in him. The church had never
before been so loud. They were so excited. And he needed
them to be.
finally continued, ending the hive’s speculative buzz.
will come here,” he said, his face again animated, his
voice building into a momentous bravado equal that of
the occasion. “And we will train them at the college,
so they might spread the Gospel of the Lord on their
crowd boiled. Flutters of clapping, mixed still
with uncertainty. A man’s throaty voice shouted out
from the crowd. “How many?”
a bit more silent. All wanted to know.
McCabe looked for a moment around the faces,
answered, “This time, only ten.”
quick buzz that followed, an unmistakable base note of
disappointment emerged. The Father cut it off before it
“Ten people is only the beginning. In the
future there will be more. I’m afraid I can’t tell
you details right now. It’s still all too preliminary.
But let me make a prediction.”
held the news until the room felt
uncomfortably quiet, then let out his richest
now, our college is the second largest employer in
Leopold, behind the clothing plant. I believe that with
God’s help soon it will be the first.”
ramped back up, bouncing off the ceiling into a giddy
garble of excitement. There would be a future after all.
The Father had somehow come through. Their island of
faith would be saved.
the Father let them continue a bit. But the dark
current again soon found him. He walked back behind the
pulpit, grasped its sides, leaned his head down as if in
exhaustion. His face settled to a blur. Eventually,
seeing this, the parishioners quieted down.
did continue, his voice had slowed measurably; in it a
note of introversion. As if her were all alone, speaking
out loud while thinking.
a great miracle, that it survived…the mission. Our
deepest sacrifices haven’t been in vain. They never
are in the face of the Lord.”
still now. Everyone listened. Stain glass Saints looking
down once more on an assembly resembling a church Mass.
so much.” He paused a long moment, trying to find the
words. Continued, even softer, lifting up his head.
“After my uncle returned from Africa, too frail in old age to continue.
My turn to spread the gospel came. So we went, the four
of us—my nephew, Owen; my then young niece, Theresa,
who’s sitting with us here today,” said the Father,
nodding toward the choral gallery.
sister…Rebecca McCabe. Whose body came home with us in
the belly of the plane.”
repeated Sister McAllister softly with beckoning
concern. But the blond haired nun still didn’t answer.
Just looked around, from the Sisters to her uncle. With
those doe eyes. As if lost or half sleeping.
knowing what else to do, Sister McAllister delicately
wrapped her thick arm around the doe eyed woman, and
comforted her with soft words as if soothing a child.
Theresa, her uncle’s hands looked like thick white
roots against the shadows. Her head swayed again as the
dizziness pressed over her, and the longing. Again she
felt the darkness behind her swallowing her up as cold
air rattled in places her bones should have been.
felt the deep longing. She couldn’t imagine the dark
places that longing would draw her to before it all came
to an end.
parishioners had again begun the loud whispers of
discussion. Sister McAllister’s arm still around her,
Theresa looked down to the seed in her hand. She let it
roll from its perch on her fingertips into the crease of
her palm. She turned her hand over and let it fall.
night, in the starkness of her convent room, she would
Of a small
girl, just six years old, the sunlight coming down on
her tiny outstretched arms, shining in shimmering loops
off the brass bangles around her wrists, the spinning
blue of the African sky above her, clouds circling as
her feet paddled circles as fast as she could.
brother’s laughter as she saw the dizzying blue spin
towards the ground and she came to a snickering,
bouncing crash. The taste of the soft grass in her
mouth. Her brother down on the ground too, his laughter
too much for him to handle while remaining on his two
bare feet. A little girl smiling as she lied on her
back, woozy, so alive. Looking sideways toward her
brother’s swaying feet, their calloused pads riding
the hysteria that continued to take him.
She had believed then. No veil
had separated her from what she now couldn’t find. Her child’s faith had
been a skittering blue dream held just below the
surface. As necessary and forgettable as sleep.
But it had disappeared along with the other marks of childhood. It had
been grown out of, angels slipping quietly away day by
day until one morning she looked up and only then
realized that something terribly wrong had happened.
That something very important had fled across the
heavens and she’d forgotten what it looked like and
how to bring it back.
dream these things but awaken with her mouth watering,
left with only the falling memory of the sour sweet
fruit of the baobab tree.
that afternoon, in the grassy fields
that edge the town, a figure sits crouched in the ankle
high grass. Rivulets from the dry stream bed’s banks
nearly reach his right foot. He slowly turns toward the
bordering woods, tilts his head up and stares over the
thicket of short scraggled bushes and into the forest
beyond. His eyes are cobalt blue, the deep color of
filters through its canopy in soft green patches. His
reddish blond hair is disheveled, it partially hides a
serrated field of scars that wind like the furrows of an
old plow down his right cheek. From afar the scars look
almost like the claw prints of a wandering bird, or a
child’s drawing of a leafless tree.
smells of the burrowing mosses and rotting leaves come
down to him from the wood. He sees insects flying in
erratic loops near the tree line. Their wings shine
white in the sunlight. And he feels the faint whiff of
the pine glade that holds the rocky soil on the
mountain’s top, its scent riding down the hollow
tunnel of the creek bed and onto the meadow that
interrupts groves of trees on the east side of town.
his hand from among the patches of dried crab grass,
fingers shaking with delicate concern.
grasshopper rides his cramped palm, its trestle-banded
legs awry, tiny mandibles moving as its head shifts from
side to side, kidney-shaped eyes with their brown glow.
you. I do. You sang upon the wind, a whisper, your voice
a soft echo on the forest shadows. I remember. You
sprang across the thicket, your dark reflective eyes
darting with their thousand monocles aglow.
must remember too. For our eyes met. I saw them. Your
dizzying line swaying and singing as you moved through
the heavy air. The faint whirl of your wings a green
note added to the noises that fell on us from the
forest’s edge. The sounds of daydreams and hunger. And
death. Yes, I fear them too.
lifts his hand on the hot air and away it flies, the
faint whir of its tiny beating wings following it as if
wavers across the pale dry stretch of the meadow. He
smiles as it flies away, his ears following as its
flicker fades below the sounds of the glade.
suddenly gusts through the bows and along the forest
floor and he jerks his head back to pull in the wood’s
creaking and smells. Pulls his hair over his right ear
to get a better view. With arms rigid at his sides, eyes
scanning, his feet slowly feel their backwards way.
navigates back a while, then turns, steers a route left
that of the grasshopper. He can still smell the pines as
he reaches the hill’s crest and the college comes into
view. He looks back a last time to the forest, then back
down the hill.
something else now, an electric smell, and sees the
approaching storm’s dark horizon clinging to the sky
beyond the green of the college grounds. From a distance
a subtle yellowing of the school’s features is its
only sign of wear.
The boy turns
right and along a trail pressed in the grass across
the hilltop begins a staggering gallop toward home.