AN AMERICAN POPE

dfw-px-aap-cover-3d-nologo

Inspector St. Antoine

What more trouble can this priest cause, dead now these three hundred and fifty years?

Inspector St. Antoine strolled again upon this planet of the dead, disconnected from the reason why, the primum mobile locked away in his mind’s deepest recesses and overlaid by decades thick as millennia of staring into dead faces and at their ravaged bodies. Tasked with inspiriting them with truth, he watched as the land at his feet fell away and the ground beneath him rose, rose into the sky where, across the intervening abyss, a hooded figure faced him from a plateau of also rising ground. The Inspector drew his gun, aimed and pulled the trigger, watched as the nightmare bullet rocketed along, blasting a path through the air, but then the ground collapsed beneath his feet and the hooded one disappeared above him. He fell through blackness, grasped at nothing until his clawing fingers hooked onto clammy sheets.

He should have taken a pill after all and he reached now for one of the little fragments of shaped blue sky. He washed it down, closed his eyes, and gave it a chance to work. A last mollusk of sleep would be … did come to him.

When his eyes opened, he rose, drew the curtains, changed his bed sheets. Through the window, he looked to his garden pond for what it told of the weather; a strong breeze raised silver glints along the serried surface and washed obscuring gray over the sinewy hues of his goldfish. The installation of this artifice inevitably reminded him of his semi-active status – the cases now come to his door, when they came at all – affording him time to attend to such diversions. Serried and gray meant he would take his breakfast indoors.

Yesterday, a cruiser had arrived, late in the working day. Physically slight but not to be challenged, the representative of the new breed of officer had raised an eyebrow at his scrutiny. At the wheel of the car, the female partner had bent to peer out the window, blond curls straying across one eye. What were they thinking! The higher echelons of power assumed that, without express permission, such pairings would not conduct themselves as rabbits, thought Antoine. In Montreal, no less. They had left him with a brown manila envelope.

His benign garden awaited him in salubrious fashion beyond the wall of paned glass. He sat inside and forked down eggs, spread apricot jam on cooling buttered toast and didn’t consider what might be the details of his hand-delivered mail until he poured himself a second cup of black coffee.

From the envelope he drew a sheaf thick as his thumb: photographs, notebook scribbles transferred to type, diagrams and layouts, addresses, topographies of the investigation, interviews and follow-ups, thumbnail biographies: all the edited record of the official redactor. He would have to access the complete files as needed. His eye went to the covering letter that warranted his involvement:

Antoine,
Sorry to break into your extracurriculars but you insist on being there for this kind of punishment. This one is ten years cold, and forensics sees something of use in the find. As always, it’s your drill, and so good luck … but you tell me you earn yours!
Salutations, Pierre
(Pierre Laval, Chief Superintendent, Montreal Police Department)

He and Pierre Laval had started out together sharing each other’s cases of nerves – performance anxiety, some called it – that only a rising sea of testosterone propionate, compliments of the brotherhood, finally knocked out of them. (Competitive as always, he wondered if his friend knew that that was the full term.) Those days on the streets (his mind always went to the early days) society passed them by, pushed them down, its unstoppable river simply bearing them away. They learned each other’s minds and, given a case such as this, either one of them would have said unnecessarily enough, “Someone has to be nervous if they’re still on the field.”

Sunlight had begun to bathe his garden and deflect in waves off the pond, striking more deeply at its swimming creatures. Strong visual statements that anchored to the present appealed to him, for he labored beyond time, digging and rooting out as he established a course. He saw no criminality in the infinitely veering, dodging, and hovering gold-hued fish.

A Thomas Claremont, Professor of Archaeology, McGill University, merited acknowledgment in the local news casts along with a handful of his students for unearthing the “find.” Sixteenth century maps indicated a native settlement in the city’s east end, not far from the river. European religious habitations had soon replaced it. These evolved into the present-day grounds of a Catholic church and school – the Ecole De Sacre-Coeur De Jésus. Influenza, according to the extant medical and historical records, had shredded much of the indigenous social fabric. Once functioning communities – both nomadic and settled – turned inward and beggarly, decimated by the mere presence of the invader. Today one encountered their descendants squatting on the main downtown streets sharing a bottle of wine, self-deprecating grins showing a common face. At a meeting with the local bishop, the impassioned troupe from the university had had to suffer through a deliberate pause while His Excellency duly considered their assurances as to the limits of the dig before he gave sanction. Fine old trees filled the grounds and, “There is the gazebo to think about,” even if no nun or priest took advantage of it. It was an area of historical interest, as he well recalled – an accidental “find” some twenty years before that still preoccupied the Church and Rome Itself – and not to be subjected to the duress of purely experimental investigations. He wouldn’t countenance the gazebo’s being temporarily moved either, not without solid evidence of some probable worthwhile gain. Professor Claremont saw the folly of attempting to negotiate and, accepting Bishop Parthenais’ arguments without demur, agreed to all his stipulations. It was mostly an exercise after all, and the maps gave him confidence that they should turn up something worthwhile pretty well anywhere in the locale. From the look of things, church and school in the form of blocks of cut granite and the tarmac itself had rendered a large portion of the original settlement unavailable, obliterating initial hopes of a full-scale recovery.

When they staked out their perimeter, the gazebo infringed upon little more than one corner and, after debating whether or not to direct operations from under its shelter, the professor decided, with a nod to the bishop’s sensitivities, that it were best left alone, and he enforced the matter with some locally purchased yellow police tape. The field tent would serve instead where they might store their discoveries and maintain an air of professionalism.

After two weeks, they had begun to amass a fair collection of artifacts that gave credence to the map’s claims and lifted the morale that actual toil with mud and clay had somewhat dampened. At the same time, the professor’s students felt an increased curiosity for the life that had once been here and Professor Claremont especially enjoyed the now positively vibrating bonds between himself and his students. He was lunching in the tent with the rest of the flock when Emily found him. Everyone noticed her blanched appearance. Equipped with a stout physique and determined nature, she had assigned herself the task of troweling and whisking at the perimeter, pushing the bounds in quest of a greater prize than the earthenware shards, the fragments of deer and squirrel bone at a throwing distance from an ancient fire pit where, from the teeth marks, the tribe’s dogs had disputed them. She wanted more than mere verification of life having been here, something complete that her finding it would restore in some manner. Later she would cringe at these inflated hopes but, at the time, she had believed in the aims of her dogged application and only ceased her efforts when it was too late to avoid the horror of the fully dislodged flawless object. As she stared at the small mineral-stained skull – that she immediately identified as a child’s – she felt as though the earth had moved and brought her to the beginning of a Rwanda’s seemingly endless construct of unfleshed heads. She had seen such a roadside wall years ago on her parents’ television screen. Her trowel fell to the ground and she ran to the field tent as if some urgency threatened, arriving just at the point of tears. This is what it is like, she told herself, when you are actually there and not separated from events by the protective barriers of mere reportage. (The image of the nightmarish wall would return to her on future expeditions in the English countryside when she would stride beside field borders of fitted flint stone.) This particular find and the arrival of the police dashed Bishop Parthenais’ unvoiced hope of repeating the success of the earlier – much earlier – discovery.

***

2

The Gazebo

cover              Twenty Years Before

BUY THE BOOK

The back-hoe operator took his time about this delicate piece of work so close to the gazebo, paid by the hour as he was with his machine including time lost until the next job, in other words, overhead. The Church has deep pockets and it’s just money coming back, it is. In any event, they spend it on themselves. So flowed the admirably broad if tending to dry up stream of his thoughts that would leave him at times with a look of inviting vacancy and at others with the hunger of one who feels himself wronged in some way.

The tree he’d contracted to remove had succumbed to the hunger of nomadic beetles whose boundaries the warming of the climate had extended, and so there was nothing for it but to cut down the defenseless host, uproot the base and put the lot to the fire, keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the stand more out of transient animosity than concern, for that lot was not his worry.

With the bishop’s admonitions as to the safety of the gazebo in mind, communicated by that Father Mallory, he’d dug a deep trench between it and the tree preparatory to the lifting. He worked his back-hoe with care, first one side and then the other, both profit and respect at issue here. Each partial lift he caused the hoe to shake, sifting combined stone and earth through the raised root structure. With nice judgment, he nudged the hoe to a placement that he regarded as suitable, past the outer tangle, shook the whole some more and, sucking through his teeth, lifted and backed away, all the while his steady eye tracking onto the precious gazebo just beyond, ready to apply the brakes at the slightest tremor. Much of the operation’s success he honorably attributed to the softening effects of recent rain in addition to his own skills.

Turned about, ready to cast off the load, with a marked acuity he identified the prize: a foreign object the color of the clinging mud. It was oblong, and he could make out the fragment of a buckle. There was no need to rush. Better to take things in his stride. Inspection could wait until he’d deposited in the back of his pick-up. Alone out here like this, he could savor the moment.

Change the routine this might, but in case not, he steadied himself, ready for the usual nothing – no point letting his thoughts run ahead of him. Just his luck to find some discard off a hundred-year-old refuse heap from the breadth of those tree roots. All to the good, he’d got it clear in his hands and there was a bit of heft to it and not just sodden damp. Something inside. He would carry it over to his back-hoe and be no more than a man at his machine, sussing it out there with less likelihood of being approached. In the event, the eye of the world remained on him and he felt himself under a microscope while he went ahead with his plan.

The long-abused leather pouch, slimy to the touch, had sealed itself closed, and he worked at it with his jackknife until he had a strip of something to pull on and the entire flap tore off. He reached inside, drew out a distended black-covered lump that looked to be humid bacteria-infected pastry dough. Turned over, he identified a cross where a few gold flecks clung. Shit! Unconscious of being red-faced for his utterance, he laid the ruin on the edge of the back-hoe. Odds and ends collected in his hand as he dug deeper.

Rubbish, he could tell, and, in exasperation, he flipped the satchel upside down and shook it. One item fell at his feet: nothing but a ragged scrap of waxy canvas, possibly wrapping that had come undone. Again he looked inside and, from a separate compartment at the back pulled out a rectilinear bundle covered in the same material and secured by strips of leather thong knotted into a bow.
He gulped down a causeless gratitude as he tried one leather end, tugged at the other, resorted again to his jackknife and, with a slice, bypassed the knot. He peeled away the protective cover and there it was. Writing! “Holy-Moly! Freakin’ Mother of God!” Narrow though the range of his emotion may be, he was not in full command of it and repeated what he’d just said. “Holy-Moly! Freakin’ Mother of God!”

One by one he handed over the items, holding onto the satchel in a more and more futile display of proprietorship, but all the while gauging the young priest’s response. From what he could determine by the look of things, this cleric wouldn’t manage to put anything over on him, not with soft pink hands considerately extended like that, and his calm interested expression. He knew the stories and, but for taking the Church’s money, would have turned down the job. His calloused fingers relinquished the last of the discovery. He was at a loss as to what else he might add to the garbled, brief narrative of his find without a clue of its value and at another’s mercy, not a feeling he liked.

Secretarial work, he had opined in his private examination, or priests writing to each other. Love letters – it wouldn’t surprise him. Who knows how long they’d been at it? Didn’t start yesterday or the day before the newspapers came out with it. And now just look at the state the world’s in! He wanted to spit. His body enlisted the aid of the wooden armchair the priest had invited him to occupy and tightened in disgust. He wouldn’t leave until he got satisfaction. His eyes shoved a needle into the young priest to pin him to the necessary justice of the occasion. And maybe see him flutter.

Father Mallory’s equanimity showed in complete contrast with the state of his visitor whose rigidity he put down to any number of possible causes. He supposed that his own consciously chosen manner could in some way have sparked much of the enmity and he tried to appear oblivious to the unintended effect. His field of endeavor was meant to be universal love after all and he was painfully aware of the kinks in his practice of it. Or, horror of horrors, perhaps here yet another of the scandalous misinterpretations operated! (Whatever the case may be he took comfort when he compared his efforts to those of his immediate brethren although, no doubt, some of the older ones provided a better example, having long accommodated themselves to much of what came their way, and subsequently shorn themselves of ideological earnestness.) The truth of it was that the embrace of his fellow man in all of his guises left Father Mallory profoundly queasy. He intuited, correctly for his particular nature, that he hadn’t sufficiently experienced the world, the question being exactly how to do so in harmony with his calling?

“Would there be anything else, Mr. Ash?” he inquired in as gentle and commiserative a tone as possible. He meant to soothe unaware that his visitor had impaled him like a butterfly to his comfortable leather chair.

“‘Ow could there be? I jus’ gave all to ya!”

That instant of sympathy confirmed the back-hoe operator’s suspicions. Nothing of value here. Leastways, not cash value. The priest had scanned one or two manuscript pages and looked up with nothing to share. Same treatment he always got – he wouldn’t say from his betters.

“‘Ere, look for yerself, that’s all the love letters there is!”

He immediately understood that he had gone too far and he fought down the feeling, seeing that there was no backing down now. His intention to pass over the satchel as proof of his lack of criminality fell away before the need to save face, and he dropped it on the priest’s desk instead, effectively ending the interview.

“There’s work to be finished,” he announced asserting his own domain, and he turned to leave the room.

Had he been remiss in some way? Father Mallory called for him to wait.

“I didn’t mean to suggest anything. A thorough search, that’s all. And we haven’t discussed your reward. Please, do sit down again.” His smile invited.

“‘Scuse me, Father, I didn’t get yer drift-like. Hot t’day, i’n’t it?”

Once the mollified back-hoe operator resumed his seat, Father Mallory began to examine the leather satchel’s insides, speaking all the while. Perhaps he hadn’t been as communicative as he might and the man certainly deserved a more congratulatory response.

“Yes, this is all very interesting. There may be some historical value. It’s difficult to know. The writings appear to be quite old. And what is this?”

From a corner at the bottom of the satchel, he withdrew a familiar-looking object that had been lodged between creases of leather.

“There!”

He smiled as thumb and index finger held up a wooden crucifix, pulpy to the touch and sad to the eye. The two men exchanged a look of dismissive pity. The priest lay the ruined cross next to a similarly abused breviary. The pathos was inescapable. Further, what was to be done with items in such condition? Dispose of them in the vast, common burial ground where the precious has also become rubbish.

“Dem writin’s ‘ll tell ya somethin’, I ‘xpect, Father.” The clear-sighted Mr. Ash had become uncomfortable and impatient for an end to this. “Nuthin’ else then?”

Father Mallory gazed for a moment at the unidentifiable collection of odds and ends that had been first handed to him. “It appears not.” He had searched the furthest recesses. The only find of possible value had been protected. It had survived due to conscious effort and, as to the rest, the man had been correct in his assessment.

“Bishop Parthenais will look kindly upon this service, Mr. Ash. An emolument – I’m sorry, a reward – will be coming your way, you may be sure of it. Let me just write you up a receipt with all the particulars, that establishes you as the finder with all legal rights and compensation in that capacity.”

First appeased and now gratified, Mr. Ash found patience enough – sharply felt, truth be told – for the production of this document. He also managed to express some curiosity about the item that had brought him his due.

“What is it then?” he asked as he watched Father Mallory apply pen to paper. He wanted to make sure he got the question in before he had to leave.

How to explain that the writings appeared to come from a priest of the 1600’s, whose bones had been long identified by church records and, at this very moment, were stored one floor down right beneath where they were seated?

This much, so far at least, Father Mallory had gleaned from the journal’s flamboyant authorship.

“They will have to be translated,” he said, gesturing to the documents. “They are in old French.” He assumed an apologetic expression that conveyed the regret that he wasn’t telling all. “A journal of some sort,” he added with a final stroke of his pen.

“A journal is it … ? A journal … ?” Mr. Ash strove valiantly, ending without comfort and in recognizable defeat. He folded and pocketed the attribution of his finder’s rights, telling himself he would give it a full reading once reestablished on his back-hoe, and narrowed his eyes. “You knows where to reach me then.”

“As to love letters, Mr. Ash, I am aware that things have happened in the Church’s past.” These unfortunate words restrained the back-hoe operator who was yet again at the point of levering himself out of his chair.

“In the past, Father! Still goings-on, last I heard! Looks t’ me as the world’s goin’ t’ hell in a basket!”

The two men stared at each other for a moment.

“Yes, Mr. Ash, it often appears that way, doesn’t it? We must all do our part, mustn’t we? Not to have it happen, I mean. The Church perhaps more so, since It has taken on the job as it were.” He gave a slight shrug that he hoped his visitor didn’t read as an admission of failure, or that he viewed the responsibility for humanity’s fate as too great even for the Church. Still, the weakness of the gesture he recognized and accepted.

“It’s different when you’re very young though, I would think,” he added, unable to stop voicing the sympathetic suspicions that might explain the back-hoe operator’s animosity and now led to the invasive turn to his words.

Mr. Ash had thought to have details of the sins that appalled him to hand, but found his mind refusing to connect with the priest’s stilted subtleties and lurching frustratingly back to his recent struggles with the beetle-infested tree. He did not leave without a final disclaimer:

“Not me, Father. Wouldn’ve happened t’ me! If that be all, I shall be hearin’ from you I ‘xpect.”

“You will, Mr. Ash. And thank you.”

With a rueful smile at his visitor’s departure and his own felt ineptitude, Father Mallory reseated himself and put aside any self-recrimination, drawn as he was to the thick sheets of pale grey, handmade paper come to him from the distant past.

His first scanning of the find in Mr. Ash’s presence had made clear to him raw emotion that seemed to make the pages’ dark ink shine. It was out of character but, as he read, his lips moved in his labour to release meaning from the difficult and unfamiliar penmanship – a not quite alien but certainly archaic orthography whose seemingly willful oddities of style recorded once conscious thought. This was the closest he has come to experiencing a resurrection. Each vowel and consonant enjoined an enunciating breath, while arbitrary spacing drove him on and unorthodox stops left him bewildered and reappraising the terrain. Already he sensed that he would need help with this enterprise, an interpreter better suited to voice and placate – to channel the spirit behind – these inky lashings out.

Bishop Parthenais’ secretary hunched over his keyboard with a threatened air as he pecked away, the monitor’s image invading his reading glasses and obscuring his eyes. His posture suggested either concentration or an inward turning against a felt cold. The waiting-room was, in fact, warm, with a suspicious unwanted heat that seemed to issue from some hidden neglected source: perhaps a radiator camouflaged by vent or screen. Incomprehensibly drawn, dim red velvet drapes left a minimal exposure in what otherwise promised to be a bank of windows, the remaining vertical slice onto the outdoors losing out to the ceiling lights whose fluorescent bath served more congenially, it appeared, the pursuit of ‘labors out of time’ than would the clamoring fulness of day. Heavily varnished woodwork framed the soupy green wall paint.

Father Mallory chose one of the leather-cushioned chairs within easy reach of a squat glass-topped table that displayed copies of The Catholic Reporter carefully arranged like a game of patience. He considered and finally decided against whatever edification the magazines had to offer. Instead, his eyes began to trace the outlines of jungle flora depicted in the carpet and one polished shoe wagged in accord with the rhythmic pattern. This diversion could only last so long: between the entranceway and secretarial desk, the stains of inconsiderately worn winter boots had muddied the frond-like effect and he curtailed the movement. His thoughts first glanced off of what had most recently engaged him: his first viewing of Brother LeBoeuf’s bones where his premonitory feeling of an occasion for mutual appraisal had soon vanished. Both horrific and sad, the experience had not been unlike witnessing someone in circumstances that are wholly beyond one’s capacity to improve and where closing the door upon them seems a more appropriate response than one’s proffered well-wishes could be. Taking his own direction, he turned his mind to the interview ahead. It also weighed on him as an unbalanced confrontation without much reward, his past meetings with the bishop not having been what he might have wished and expected – if not warmth and hospitality then mentorship of a kind, but nothing beyond directives ever seemed to be forthcoming. These issued from his bland superior in a manner that suggested only a desire to avoid an open and broadly considered dealing with any issue at hand. As for himself, he had stopped believing that it was all owing to some ineptitude of his own.

***

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