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Copyright 2005 Peder Hill, Dreaming Underwater. All rights reserved.

 

Flight of the black swallow

July 1962

The 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.

Making an 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.

Eight 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.

Sister 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.

Their 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.

None of them had noticed the brooding lapse of Theresa’s attention, or the movement of her lips, or the seed.

Theresa 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.

The shadow 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.

Beyond the 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.

But 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.

For now 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 it.

She searched their colored webs. Shards of glass woven in nets of steel. Their symbolic language lost on the uninitiated. Stories 2000 years old.

In the 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.

To 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 glass foot.

The last 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 hand.

The little voice inside her tried again to speak up, like a rustle of leaves in a night forest. Again she pushed it down and away.

Between 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.

Below the 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.

From 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.

Her line 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.

Christ 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.

She looked again toward the ceiling, and this time got caught on the three words hammered in the wooden truss above the sanctuary.

“The Lord Seeth,” they pronounced.

Theresa mouthed these over and over. As if in rolling the syllables over her tongue she tried to remember what they meant.

Then the lips stopped, the frail emptiness again took over. Like falling backwards, she thought. Bleeding with nothing left.

She had 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.

Beyond her 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 ghosts.

An 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 sometimes.

But then 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.

Forever.

She’d 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.

Father 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.

Today, 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.

Inside St. 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. Hope.

Only the 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 finally come.

McCabe 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 river stones.

“God’s 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.

The town 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.

Abandoned 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.

Once mining communities like Leopold.

One stood 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 houses.

Its water 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.

The 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.

The spot 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.

What 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 their identity.

Fate.

But they could feel their identity unwinding. The end of things scenting in the air. Things would have to change.

“Some of 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…”

He paused a moment, then let it fall.

“They won’t.”

The grumble strengthened to a roar. Father McCabe waited patiently for it to die off.

Leopold 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 floor.

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.

He 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.

By spring 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.

Just days 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.

A year 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 structure.

Owned, like everything, by Susquehanna Coal.

Nearby 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.

A 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.

Twin lines 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.

But these things just preluded the real beginning.

A bit 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.

Below it all, the mining tunnel would eat into the coal seam which ran between sandstone shelves in a weaving path, miles into the earth below.

By 1872, 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 Clayborn Run.

Then began 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 in.

Only two 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.

They 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.

The 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.

Three 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 mine coal.

By then 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 home.

Most of 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.

All searching for more.

Their 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.

Now, in 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 Great Grandfather.

Leopold’s 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.

The strong 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 swing.

Inside, the townspeople and staff of the college looked for hope.

It had 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.

This happened even though Leopold boasted The cleanest burning Anthracite in the World—this still exclaimed by the old sign outside town.

But 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 kings.

A few 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.

But many 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.

Now the 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.

So the 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 season starts!”

And one 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.

Sometimes 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.

Plenty of drunk talk garbled its way around as well, fueled by 16 bars filled day and evenings with the recently unemployed.

Depressed, embittered, enthusiastic, impassioned, buoyant, angry; on and on it went.

Three 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.

First, Leopold would be the only place they could ever call  home.

Their 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.

For them only one place could ever really be call home.

They 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.

Rising 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.

The Endless Mountains is what the Lenape Indians called them before they were driven away at the end of guns.

Whatever one called it, a Garden of Eden grew around them. And a lush emerald buffer that kept outside influences at bay.

The third 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 fate.

The reason to hold on when all else seemed lost. An idea strangely difficult to put into words.

The world 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.

Modernism, 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 modern home.

But it 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.

The devil playing the magician; masterfully shifting cards in a meticulous ruse until all memory of The Father had vanished.

The quiet 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.

Its 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.

The connection to God fading as the power of the state grew ever strong.

The 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 disguise.

The 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 night. 

The signs of spiritual collapse were everywhere. Only a fool could possibly ignore them.

When opportunity struck, the devil wasted no time.

But the 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 their prayers.

Their 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.

And in spite of a world growing decadent and hollow at the periphery, Leopold’s spiritual grounding remained intact. For now.

In their hands they held the tools to keep it: the tightness of their community, knotted determination, the college. Possibilities would be found.

The 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.

Today, in 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.

Father McCabe stood upright behind the pulpit, snuck a secret deep breath. The noise in the church had finally settled. He began.

“The 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.

“I’ve spoken with many of you. Exchanging ideas. Praying.”

A mixture of emotions complicated McCabe’s face: sadness creased his gray eyebrows, the threat of a smile flickering in the intense mouth below.

“It’s miraculous the unexpected ways God can help you,” he said.

He took another deep breath, one everyone could see.

“For us, 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.”

The parishioners, trying to fathom the strange talk and mixed expressions, remained guardedly silent.

McCabe let go his moorage on the pulpit, walked around front, wanting to be closer as he spoke. He curled his fingers into one another.

“As most of you know, St. Mary’s established a mission in Africa, many years ago. In Nigeria’s Muslim dominated north.”

The whispers sparked up anew.

“It’s survived. And we find our futures inextricably linked.

Surprised hushed voices chopping in quick phrases—exclamations of surprise or confusion, guesses to where this might go.

“We left Nigeria twenty two years ago.” The darting smile vanished entirely now, the face lengthening as sorrow took control.

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 down.

“We’ve received both a call for help; at the same time an answer to our prayers. First I’d like to explain their situation.

Father 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.

There 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.

There were more appropriate places to discuss such things.

And 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.

He’d spoken at lengths with many of the parishioners and College staff about the Nigerian mission. Laying the groundwork for their understanding and support.

They knew the depths of the evil that he now only nodded toward. He’d filled their ears with his stories.

When 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.

When there were only adults, he’d told of the brutality.

Violence 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.

It had 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.

Its 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.

The Muslims fiercely persecuted Christians in the north. The level of abuse much worse than the Christian leaning southern areas and the Niger delta.

The 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 death.

The cults were much worse.

Pagans 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 well.

Ancient 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.

Juju is what they called it there. Sorcery. The pagans with their hundreds of deities. Their priests holding court in the dark throats of caves.

That’s where they find the bodies sometimes. Victims of the unspeakable.

Innocent men and women, children, babies; abducted regularly. Stolen from fields and forests and waterholes. From playing with hand carved dolls among the trees.

Robbed sometimes from their own bedrooms. Lulled along by the promise of cigarettes, alcohol. Candy.

Taken sometimes by family friends, or relatives. Uncles. Even fathers.

Then ritually killed.

When 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 of youth.

Sometimes the bodies were found entirely stripped of flesh—the corpses dusty crumpled versions of images in anatomy books.

The cult members and priests ate the skin, the genitals. Swallowed down the small round hearts of children. Sometimes those of their family.

Atrocities, heinous and unspeakable.

Despicable acts performed by malevolent souls reaching out to supernatural spirits, or hoping for a quick bit of money, a turn of fortune.

Not all 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 cards.

But nobody ever disagreed. Nigeria needed God.

The 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.

 “There’s 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.”

The heads 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 find out.

But 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.

Theresa’s eyes looked like those of a doe.

The horse race forgotten, face pursed with worry, the choir director waved brusquely for Sister McAllister’s attention. Then motioned the oblivious woman toward Theresa.

“We 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 occur.”

The tiny 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.

He finally continued, ending the hive’s speculative buzz.

“They 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 own.”

The crowd boiled. Flutters of clapping, mixed still with uncertainty. A man’s throaty voice shouted out from the crowd. “How many?”

They fell a bit more silent. All wanted to know.

Father McCabe looked for a moment around the faces, answered, “This time, only ten.”

From the quick buzz that followed, an unmistakable base note of disappointment emerged. The Father cut it off before it could build.

   “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.”

He held the news until the room felt uncomfortably quiet, then let out his richest baritone.”

“Right 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.”

The voices 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.

This time 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.

When he did continue, his voice had slowed measurably; in it a note of introversion. As if her were all alone, speaking out loud while thinking.

“It’s 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.”

All sat still now. Everyone listened. Stain glass Saints looking down once more on an assembly resembling a church Mass.

“We gave 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.

“And my sister…Rebecca McCabe. Whose body came home with us in the belly of the plane.”

“Theresa,” 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.

Not 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.

To 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.

Again she felt the deep longing. She couldn’t imagine the dark places that longing would draw her to before it all came to an end.

The 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.

That night, in the starkness of her convent room, she would dream.

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.

Then her 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.

She would dream these things but awaken with her mouth watering, left with only the falling memory of the sour sweet fruit of the baobab tree.

 Later 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 water.

Light 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.

The wet 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.

He lifts his hand from among the patches of dried crab grass, fingers shaking with delicate concern.

The small 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.

I know 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.

You 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.

The boy 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.

The wind 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.

He 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.

He smells 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.

 

inks