A Lit and Lighting Dark
By Abraham Schneider - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA - 2 September 2016
Even as a boy, Thomas had been terrible with knots. In his hands, ropes became snakes, squirming free, slithering over and under one another, vanishing and then reappearing in unexpected places. Before his dad had left, he had bought Thomas a bedroom poster: ‘A Guide to Nautical Knots.’ The ‘nautical’ part meant the chart had omitted the hangman’s noose. Thomas was not sure why the hangman’s noose would not be needed just as much at sea as anyplace else.
It was this noose he had tried to improvise that evening in his tiny apartment in the Polish Hill neighborhood, winding, coiling, and looping until he thought he had it. He had shunned going on the Internet to watch an instructional video; that would have made it intentional, when the whole thing had been more of a morbid curiosity.
It was August in Pittsburgh, evil, haunted, blood red late summer. And he was alone.
Thomas had no intention of doing anything close to killing himself. Even the words turned his stomach. The whole thing with the noose and the small space over the floor joist in the basement where the subflooring had warped up just enough to slide the rope through—he could explain none of it. The knot was bad, and it failed to tighten. The drop wasn’t anything that could have broken his neck. He kicked hard, and for a moment he thought, ‘somebody’s going to find my body.’ Then the knot slipped, he got a toe on the concrete, and he tore at the bulge in the rope blindly. It loosened, and the breath that came into his lungs was like the first wind that God ever breathed into the clay to make man.
All that remained was an ugly burn scar circling the front of his throat. That, and the memory of collapsing to the concrete, every muscle drained of strength so that his entire body felt like jelly. He must have sweated half a gallon. Afterward, he was thirstier than he had ever been.
The sunsets over the Allegheny River flooded his apartment in a warm red wash. The figures in his neighborhood seemed like time travelers visiting from the future. Gooski’s, the Rock Room: The hipsters in studs and black leather and long, wild hair, pushing in steel doors to the croak of death metal seemed like members of some apocalyptic race.
“Are you still going to Mass?” his mother asked on the phone when Thomas divulged he’d had a breakdown (he left out the part about the rope).
“Sometimes.” This was true.
“I don’t know what say, Thomas. You’re such a smart boy. It breaks my heart that you’re all alone out there, struggling. You’re too young to struggle!”
Augustine, the bearish mechanic who ran Polish Hill’s only auto shop, had told him once, “Diagnostics is eighty percent of the problem. Once you know what the issue is, fixing it’s easy as one-two-three.”
Of course, Augustine was speaking of Thomas’s ever-failing Chevy S10, whose bushing arms were worn to almost nothing. But why couldn’t the principle apply to life just as well as to wheels?
Thomas’s life was dedicated to the exploration of the interior landscape. Saints, mystics, priests, the wounded, the anguished; his aim was to study and to exist with these. But now his own interior landscape seemed to have fallen into dusk, and he could only peer dumbly at the monstrous shapes that populated it.
His mother sent him the name of a psychologist at Western Psych and some money. Her note said: “See a priest, too. Psychology is a wonderful thing, but don’t leave out the soul!”
The psychologist, Dr. Wenner, was a fence rail. He had a black goatee that looked like he had rubbed shoe polish in it. Even had his facial hair not glistened slightly, the fact that his name began with ‘Wen’ was sufficient reason for Thomas to dislike him.
“Do you love yourself, Thomas?” His first question.
“I mean, I’m not in love with myself,” Thomas replied. “I’m not self-obsessed. I don’t think.”
The office was somehow the perfect temperature. The colors were meant to relax him.
“We are capable of having a conversation within ourselves, our mind and our heart speaking to each other. When something like this happens, it’s time to begin that conversation.”
What did Dr. Wenner want to know? The usual: It was significant that Thomas’s dad, Arnold Lake, had left when he was in the seventh grade. His older brother, JP, in the eleventh grade at the time, had seemed unscathed by the departure. Thomas recalled JP on the back porch, long high school hair drifting cinematically in the breeze: “It’s no use being angry. It won’t help one bit, but it will hurt like hell. This is the life you’ve got: this one, no other.”
JP, seventeen, already a man of immense practical wisdom.
Meanwhile, Thomas plunged into an ugly darkness that lasted the rest of middle school. He had to be put in therapy. He started wetting the bed. He sobbed for no reason at school. Why was his case so different? His mother took him out to the front walk on a boiling July day, set an ice cube and a marshmallow side by side on the concrete. The ice melted, and the marshmallow grew hard. “Same conditions,” his mother said. “People have different stuff inside them, honey.”
All through high school Thomas felt shipwrecked, adrift at sea; at times the swells bore him aloft, and he hardly had to tread; he could see for miles across the open water. The sun shone on his face. And then down he rode the gray slope of water into the trough, and up came the waves like walls on either side, obscuring any possible view. And was it just the nature of a cycle that refused to heal, or did the troughs grow deeper each time? In Junior High it was the dark moods, crying jags, the indescribable sadness. In high school it was the heavy drinking, the darker moods, clothing darker still. Then on to the University of Pittsburgh, where the troughs filled with codeine, morphine, Percocet, ephedrine, hard liquors in twenty-ounce coffee shop to-go cups, rare but frightening self-mutilation.
And then, in his junior year, it happened: The wave came in too strong, and instead of lifting Thomas up out of the trough and onto the swell, it plunged him deep, deep underwater. He had no memory of staggering the seven miles through spring slush from campus to his mother’s house in Crafton. She found him on the steps of the back porch, insensate and frostbitten.
Thomas woke up in the emergency room under a badly blinking fluorescent. A doctor with a large white mustache and bald head stood by his bedside with a clipboard and tapped a piece of paper. “Thomas,” he said, “there are three lies we will be tempted always to believe: That God does not love us, that God does not care about us, that God does not wish to be with us.”
The doctor’s nametag read Dr. Piel. Thomas saw it clearly. Afterward, he asked for Dr. Piel, and he was told there was no one on staff by that name. It was likely it had been a lucid dream, but Thomas found this did not matter. It only struck him as interesting later that his moment of conversion had also been his first visible manifestation of psychosis.
He gave up alcohol, all substances (including over-the-counter cold medicines), read the entirety of St. John of the Cross in his hospital bed, and found his outpatient substance abuse rehab program, when he started it three weeks later, entirely redundant.
Thomas did not feel the need to mention his hallucinations to anyone because they were benign. More than benign, in fact; they showed him certain things about the world that seemed to echo and enlarge the beauty he already found present. Raindrops became actual crystals and shattered when they hit the earth, or they moved in slow motion and he walked among them as in a dance. Wood grain coursed with a burning, living flame, and this seemed right. Yes: all creation contained the presence of God, which was an undying flame.
When did the idea first come into his head that he might want to be a priest? It fit. In the years after college, he made up for a squandered undergrad by giving himself an education in the humanities: philosophy, theology, literature. He gave himself a military haircut and found a spiritual director, Father Daniel, whose idea of a good time was a glass of milk and a commentary on the Summa. The Newman Center chapel became to him what bars formerly had been: a place of solace and happiness. A deep receptacle for both sorrow and joy. He took up the habit of daily walks that led him into every neighborhood in the city. A vocation grew like a plant spreading its leaves, getting water and sunlight.
The reason his psychosis continued undetected was because of a problem with the spiritual life: it gave blessing to habits and lifestyles that, outside of the context of spirituality, could be considered signs of mental illness. Extreme social isolation, corporal mortification, mystical visions: for most people, these meant it was time to check into a hospital, but if Thomas became a monk, they might be signs that he was advancing along his path. Because his spirituality and psychosis often coincided, there was no need to address the symptoms: his increasing desire to be alone (the life of prayer and contemplation), his plunges into black, physically painful moods (dark nights of the soul), and Dr. Piel, who, among a small array of other characters he knew did not exist, occasionally made appearances to deliver kind exhortations (visions of angels).
And then, all at once, after the years of study and meditation, a few days after his twenty-sixth birthday, he asked Father Daniel about applying to seminary. He was given an information packet that described, among other things, the rigorous battery of psychological tests required for entrance, two full days, thousands of multiple choice questions meant to detect and weed out anyone with psychological abnormalities. He could not lie his way into such a calling.
It was August, evil, haunted, blood red late summer, and he was losing his mind. So he tied a noose, but he did it poorly.
“Are you drinking a lot, Thomas?”
“I don’t drink.”
“That’s good. Drugs?”
Thomas shook his head. “I want to hear about my results. That machine was spinning around my head for an hour. I want to know what you know.”
Dr. Wenner tapped his pen. “In a situation like this, what you tell me is actually more important than what the scans tell me. They don’t mean much without your story. Do you hear voices?”
“No. Yes. But not disembodied.”
“You see people.”
“And they speak to you.”
“What do they speak to you about?”
“What about God?”
“That he loves me.” Suddenly Thomas’s throat was thick, and he fought to continue. “That he cares about me. That he wants to be with me.”
Dr. Wenner made a note.
Thomas had spent the four years since graduation working at a construction engineering firm in the Strip District. He designed custom metal plates and sent the specs to the machinists to build and give to the welders. For four years he had saved ten thousand dollars a year from his salary. Then one day in September, he didn’t feel like going in. It wasn’t just a feeling; he couldn’t go in to work. He quit his job. He started spending the days locked in his apartment. He had never followed the shadows before along their arch over the living room carpet. At night he lay sweaty on his futon and listened to the stereos blasting on cars that whipped around the corner of 30th and Paulowna. He did not sleep for more than two or three hours a night.
“This phase,” Dr. Wenner said, “is described as the prodromal phase. What that means is, you’re exhibiting positive manifestations for psychosis. But that sounds scarier than it is. You’re young, we’re catching this early, and you don’t have any bad habits. That’s three points in your favor, and they’re big points.”
How, Thomas wondered, could such terrible things be said in such a calming space? The colors on the walls, a powdery blue, were perfect. “So I’m going crazy?”
“There is the potential that this could develop into schizophrenia. There’s about a thirty to thirty-five percent chance of that happening. There are ways to improve those odds.”
Sitting on his apartment porch, Thomas went back through the years, and what he gleaned was a benediction of sensation: at one time, the campus leaves in the fall, December snowstorms burrowed at the back of a coffee shop, the city on hoary January nights with frosting breath, happy hour on the porch of his favorite bar in the first warm spring breezes—these had been as water poured into life’s pitcher, filling every inch of space, spilling over until Thomas had felt sometimes that life itself needed to be bigger to contain the torrent. Now the cool, perfect blue and yellow days of September passed over him, and he gave not even a begrudging nod.
Kids skateboarded down at West Allegheny Park. He could hear their plastic wheels roll and grind. The bells tolled at Immaculate Heart of Mary, and each time they seemed like they might hold salvation, but they never did. He wanted a drink very badly, but Dr. Wenner had made it clear that his brain could be seduced easily by such things. No one visited him, imaginary or real.
“Why is there not nothing?”
“Is that rhetorical?” Dr. Wenner asked.
“It’s supposedly the philosophical question. According to Heidegger. It might not have been Heidegger. I’m not remembering things as well these days.”
Dr. Wenner: Steepled hands, no reaction, eyes resting on Thomas.
“Why is survival better than starvation?”
“Zyprexa,” Dr. Wenner said.
“What is that? Is that Greek? That sounds like a Greek word.”
“It’s an olanzapine. An atypical antipsychotic.”
“No drugs,” Thomas said.
“Thomas. This is standard procedure at this point in the game. A drug like this can bind to neurotransmitters and open pathways that your brain is actively destroying. I prescribe this in combination with Prozac; the two do very well together. We can fight the depression, the isolation, and we can even fight the hallucinations.”
“No drugs,” Thomas repeated. He was angry that the subject had been switched so fast, but Dr. Wenner continued as if Thomas had said nothing.
“There’s a place in the Laurel Highlands. A kind of retreat. It helps a lot to get started on these medications in a safe environment, with professionals there who can help deal with the side effects, which can be, I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, quite severe.”
“Just while you adjust to the medication.”
Thomas was up out of the chair and on his feet. Dr. Wenner tensed for second, then visibly forced himself to relax. “Thomas,” he said, still staring at the space Thomas had been while sitting. “I’m your friend.”
“You are not my friend.” Thomas pointed a finger at Dr. Wenner. “You are not my friend.”
Outside, the air was crystalline and dry September blue. Brittle leaves somersaulted down the sidewalks of Oakland. Once Thomas was safely away from Western Psych’s imposing beige brick, he stopped on a street corner and spun in a slow circle. Why couldn’t anyone leave him alone? As soon as someone heard he was in a state of anguish, they wanted him to do something: Go to Mass, take drugs, go to a sanatorium, put on a white garment and stare listlessly into the distance. Just feel better.
Not Thomas: his anguish was a country that had to be explored, not postponed or fended off. Anguish was his wood, and the paths must be walked.
When he stopped spinning, he was facing the prow of the Upper Hill that rose above the University. They used to call it Sugartop. Way up there, up above the medical buildings of UPMC and the Peterson Event Center, above the professor’s homes in Schenley Farms, obscured by dying autumn knotweed, was another world, a neighborhood lost to the city it overlooked. The idea came to him swiftly and fully formed: he was going to disappear; he could make his own sanatorium. There was only one task left.
In the autumn wind was God’s own breath. Thomas believed this. In the rhythms of the earth was the divine respiration. From the turning of the seasons down to the steam rising off the black surface of his coffee. It was forty-seven degrees, misty. Low clouds obscured the Cathedral of Learning. Even the spires of St. Paul pierced the fog’s underbelly.
Thomas placed his fingers on the cardboard sleeve. Outside the coffee shop, umbrellas formed a river of color. These moments kept arriving, when he had to catalog sensations (hot cardboard sleeve, smell of dark roast, sound of espresso beans grinding, smell of the wet September day whenever the door opened and in rushed the sound of spraying tires), had to record and register his being in the world to keep the fear at bay. These moments were growing more frequent.
Thomas lifted his fingertips from the sleeve and placed them in the same arrangement on his skull. He wanted this gloomy day. He was suddenly hungry for it. He could taste winter on the air, and he wanted his long winter walks, without summer’s molecular frenzy, wanted the streetlamps in the impossibly early winter dusk.
To be so drunk you will never again be sober; to be so sober you will never again forget. That was Teresa of Avila. But it didn’t sound like her. It was probably in a modern introduction to Teresa of Avila.
Abruptly, Thomas stood, slipped a nine-by-twelve-inch envelope into his satchel, picked up his coffee, and walked out into the drizzle.
I walked out in rain, I walked back in rain. That was either Eliot, Frost, or Hemingway.
Father Daniel was waiting in his office in his black clerical cassock. His beard, which he cut once a year, on his birthday in June, was already bushing out over his enormous, square face. Back in undergrad, Thomas and his friends had invented legends of the beard, how it housed small forest creatures, how, when cut each summer, it was wound into prayer ropes for use at the most secluded nunneries. That was back when he attended Mass as a maternal obligation, before Father Daniel had become his spiritual director.
“Thomas.” Father Daniel’s voice was as deep as a church bell and soft as velvet.
“Sorry I’m late,” Thomas said, and suddenly the thickness was back in his throat.
Father Daniel, years ago, had spoken much more quickly—prattled on, some said—before a crippling case of phantom pain in his hand had put him out of commission for a year. When he returned, his voice had slowed to the speed of contemplation, and his only subject was the fiery, cleansing love of a mysterious God who spoke from a dark cloud.
“You look troubled. And this isn’t our usual time.”
This, essentially, was what attracted Thomas to the clerical orders: only writers and priests were privileged to stare continuously at the deepest, most important facts of existence and were never asked to turn their eyes away. And Thomas was no good at writing. He could recite writers practically at will—though lately this ability had been eluding him—but he couldn’t do it himself.
He slid the envelope free from his satchel and handed it to Father Daniel.
“We have to talk about this.”
“What is ‘this’?” Father Daniel held the envelope nearly at arm’s length. Then he brought it close, opened the flap, and slid out the smooth, dark sheets of plastic. He looked at Thomas.
“They’re brain scans,” Thomas said.
He had never before hugged a priest.
Attaining Sugartop was far easier than Thomas had imagined. It turned out that most of life’s energy was put toward gaining visibility; if you wanted the opposite, to disappear, it all simplified rapidly. Salvation Army arrived in a truck helmed by an enormous black man named Vincent and took all of his furniture. Inside two days he had located a foreclosed property. They weren’t hard to find in Sugartop. Paying cash eschewed the whole real estate process; the realtors, inspectors, appraisers, and mortgage companies all vanished like steam as it boiled down to a transfer of the deed in exchange for a cashier’s check.
The rest of his things the city trash collectors disposed. He sold his truck to Augustine for parts.
When his lease ended on the last day of September, Thomas put his remaining things in a single hiking backpack, scrubbed his apartment like he had scrubbed his life, and walked out of Polish Hill, across Bigelow Boulevard, and up a set of one hundred and sixty-three crumbling concrete steps into a different world.
There was a reason he had been able to buy his new home with cash for nineteen thousand dollars. A number of reasons, actually. It was the last house on a long stretch of row houses. The roof was covered by a weighted tarp grown ragged from years out in the elements. Most of the attic beams had rotted. Of the house’s eight windows, five were boarded up. The subflooring was exposed in every room but the kitchen, which featured scored linoleum. Leaks abounded. The paint, where there was paint and plaster instead of exposed studs, was invariably peeling. The basement was an underground mold colony.
None of this he fixed. That was not the point. The house was the way he wanted it.
Thomas thought at first that people would try to find him. His friends, or his brother JP, now out in Philadelphia (Thomas’s mother, at least, he had warned in an email that he would be unreachable for a while; there were some people you just didn’t torture). Either his asylum was untraceable, or in the preceding years he had isolated himself more than he had thought. Or else this was friendship in the twenty-first century, when touch was lost so easily.
October mornings rose on him blue and clear. Sugartop was high above downtown, but cut off from the rest of the city by steep bluffs, eminent domain, and reputation. Thomas felt, under autumn’s bladed yellow sun, that he dwelt high on some mesa, in some still and timeless place. The leaves turned. He practiced something close to meditation. His goal was simple: To stop thinking. His life, the whole world, cosmic justice, all wanted consideration. He refused. He felt like a soaked sponge that needed, desperately, to dry out. So he sat on his porch in a chair he had rescued from a vacant lot. He avoided showers for the sake of the water bill. Folgers turned out to be less than five cents a cup if he made it weak. Ramen could be eaten dry. So could cereal.
There were two ways to survive solitude: One was to become a philosopher, to hold dialogues within, to explore the territories of the mind; the other was to become an animal, to study surroundings but not to contemplate them, to raid the Shop n’ Save for sustenance at ten at night when the whole place was empty, to sit in the sunlight like a dog and not think. Why did existence for humans have to come with the caveat of self-consciousness, anyway?
Mostly it was boring and mindlessly depressing. Toward Halloween there were a few evenings filled with a deep and secret happiness, and he would sit wrapped in his sleeping bag on the rotted front porch and feel the cooling air and tuck his hands into his armpits for warmth and grin stupidly.
“Peace is a presence,” Father Daniel had told him, “not an absence. You cannot find peace by jettisoning enough dirt and noise from your life. That’s not peace; that’s relaxation. People conflate peace and relaxation. But relaxation is the lack of immediate responsibility; peace is the presence of something as smooth, wide, and deep as the sea.”
Prodromal. That, according to Dr. Wenner, was his current phase. The one preceding a psychotic break up, when he still had his most valuable asset: The ability to recognize that what he was seeing was not real.
Father Daniel’s voice was so clear in his head it could have been mistaken for a hallucination: “We want God to function like an organism, like a device, something we can dissect and map out and predict. We think we’re going to force his secrets until he reveals his bosons and quarks and we’ve found the end of him. But God is infinite. And what we share with him is not chiefly rationality, but being.”
The answer to the question of whether or not the mind could be put to sleep was: mostly. Winter followed on November’s heels, and a deep ugliness invaded the neighborhood as the foliage was peeled back to reveal a stark, bombed-out street that turned brown and gray in the slush. The ancient gas radiator heater in the basement refused to click on until Thomas lost his temper and kicked it savagely. Clanking started in the walls, and for a few days he breathed air decades old and suffused with rust.
The row house directly adjacent to his was vacant. The one past that was inhabited by an old woman named Yvonne. He knew her name because Yvonne’s daughter came by three or four times a week around dusk and screamed her name from the street until the old woman limped out to the SUV and received a package through the window, which Thomas saw on the fourth or fifth such exchange was a bundled infant.
Figures prowled the dawn. The street corners hosted clandestine meetings. He fell asleep to barking (mostly pit bulls) and screaming (most domestic) and often bullets (mostly single shot). Not once did he see the police, and not once was he bothered or disturbed. Of course, this could have been an effect of his hygiene; Thomas knew what he must look like. He hadn’t brought a razor, and he was hairy by nature. He didn’t own a washing machine. He sponge bathed about every full moon. He looked like a bum. He realized his neighbors must have thought he was squatting, but no one had called the police, or the housing authority, or knocked on his door. The city below had its own version of live-and-let-live, but for a moment, Thomas was in love with everyone on his street who knew how to leave someone alone.
He could be an animal. He had food and shelter, and this was all an animal required. But one January morning, he scrubbed himself so he wouldn’t smell quite as bad, walked to the local library branch (built recently as part of the city’s initiative to reclaim Sugartop), and emailed his mother: Don’t worry, Momzo. Still truckin’. I’m gonna stay underground for a while longer. Repeat: don’t worry. Love, Thomas.”
On his way out, one of the librarians called, “have a good day, Sir!” He spun around and said, far too loudly for the quiet space, “you, too!” When he got home, his hands were shaking. He had not meant to speak to anyone.
The temperatures dropped in January, and the long part of winter, the undisturbed iron fist of the hard season settled in. The ice compacted and the sun, too weak to give anything more than light, failed to melt the snow when it made its brief appearances from behind the clouds. Thomas was afraid of snapping his heater’s brittle back, and he kept the temperatures just high enough to prevent the pipes’ freezing. He put on a pair of old Carhartt coveralls under a bulky wool shirt and stopped bathing; it was too difficult to remove the coveralls in the cold. The second half of January and then February passed without a day above freezing. Winter without relief. Death had a hand wrapped around his throat, and only at night, when he slept beneath three heavy quilts and his body finally heated up, did death loosen its grip and let him drift off, thoughtless, as he had trained himself, into a sleep void of dreams.
The knock came on one of the first days of March. Thomas was an animal hearing an intruder treading at the doorway of its den; his heart accelerated, his adrenal glands secreted something that nearly dropped him to his knees. He walked to the door and peered out the peephole. It was late afternoon. A mottled gray sky provided the backdrop to Father Daniel’s orbular cassock.
For a full minute after Thomas opened the door, they stood looking at each other. The day was iron. Father Daniel’s ears and nose were bright red, and his beard had reached its winter zenith.
Finally, Father Daniel said, “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Thomas stepped aside.
Inside, Father Daniel spent another minute taking him in. “Your eyes have something of the jungle cat in them. A predatory sleepiness. Leonine is the word that surfaces here. Your beard, though,” Father Daniel stroked his own black and white beard, “is unkempt, without direction. A great beard needs a guide to see it to its fullness. What’s the matter, Thomas? Cat got your tongue?”
Thomas reached up and took his tongue between thumb and forefinger and pulled it around in circles. He was aware he must look stark raving mad. He let go of his tongue. “Sorry. You get out of practice with the language thing.”
Father Daniel reached into a pocket of the winter jacket he wore over his cassock and pulled out two 1-quart bottles of strawberry milk. “I brought us a treat. Can we sit? I see only a single chair; you’re being Spartan.”
Thomas insisted Father Daniel take the chair, while he sprawled on the floor against the wall. The visit was too much a surprise to adjust properly to the presence of a second person in his den. The old feeling that had driven him to Sugartop in the first place returned: Someone wanted something of him.
“Aren’t you going to ask how I found you?”
Thomas did not respond.
“Very well then. Let it remain a mystery. Most things are. There are aspects of your residence here that remind me of a monk’s cell. No decorations, no furniture. ‘Sit in your cell, and it will teach you everything.’”
“The Desert Fathers,” Thomas said. “I forget which one.”
“Very good. Let’s try another: ‘It’s when I’m weary of considerations, and life is too much like a pathless wood, where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs broken across it, and one eye weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it open.’”
“‘I’d like to get away from earth awhile, and then come back to it and begin over.’ Robert Frost.”
“Your mind seems in full form.”
“What do you need from me?”
Father Daniel filled the small plastic chair. He was already tall, but there was nothing to increase someone’s physical presence like a giant beard and a cassock.
“I need you to serve at Mass.”
“I don’t know if I smell good enough,” Thomas said.
“The early Mass. Seven-thirty tomorrow morning. I assume you haven’t been attending, so get there at seven, and we can have confession. You can wash up at the rectory before.”
“What if I don’t show?”
Father Daniel leaned forward. “I’m asking as a friend, Thomas. I came up here as a friend to find you. It was not easy to track you down. If you want to ignore a friend’s request, that is up to you. If you serve, you’ll lector as well, so you might want to loosen that tongue a bit more.”
It almost sounded like he was laughing. How long had Thomas gone without hearing that burgeoning staccato of mirth behind someone’s words? A sound like that almost physically altered a landscape. The gloom of the winter night pressing at the windows lessened, and the bare bulb lighting the room seemed to flare.
Before he left, Father Daniel said, “will you abandon God, simply because you have discovered that not even your mind is your own? If you need something to chew on, just remember St. Therese’s father: He died in a mental asylum, and he was just canonized.”
After Father Daniel left, the night came, but Thomas’s animal silence had fled. His den had become a home. He spent the dark hours roaming the house, peering out into a mist that had descended to cling about the streetlamps.
The chapel was wood and plaster with flagstone tiles. Outside the mottled glass windows, the morning was black with clouds. The temperature had risen overnight and broken the frost. Two of the windows were cranked open, and odors trapped under the ice since early January had escaped and were roaming the air.
Thomas’s movements were so familiar he didn’t need to think about them. Cloth whispered and his footsteps tapped. Candles flickered. His voice was raspy when he read, fittingly, from Job to the scattered early risers. No second reading because it was a daily Mass. He gave Father Daniel the water and held the bowl beneath his hands. They bowed to each other.
When Thomas opened the censer and Father Daniel spooned the incense in, a great billowing cloud rose and plumed across his face. How fitting that Thomas could not recall from where this thought came: God was an increasing darkness. In the beginning, he spoke to Moses from the burning bush; when he led Israel across the desert, he was a pillar of fire by night but a pillar of cloud by day; on Mt. Sinai, he spoke to Moses only from the thundering darkness. And from Moses to St. John of the Cross, things had not changed: God was a flame that drew you aside, but approach him, and he receded and concealed himself in a darkness so thorough your knees trembled and buckled.
Thomas spoke in Latin. He spoke in English. Only say the word, and my soul shall be healed. He thought of his mother when he received, how she had baked wafer-like cookies before his first communion so that he could practice receiving on the tongue. He sensed he was back in the world, that a trail had been cleared, and that he would go forward. To what, he didn’t know, but he could start by visiting his mom.
He escaped a conversation with Father Daniel by slipping out the chapel’s back door and around the backside of the building. When he stepped onto the sidewalk, a balmy wind hit him, and he felt something lift inside. The morning was still dark. It was unmistakably a spring wind, and he wanted this wind more than a summer’s worth of sunlight. A car sped past. It was still dark enough that the taillights reflected like neon in the street’s puddles. It took only one breath from the world to restore its creatures. A spring wind, only, and emergence from hibernation, resurrection, ensued. The restoration of hunger was the work of half a minute.
Thomas crossed the street and headed north up Bellefield toward the looming prow of Sugartop. He was going to get some furniture.