from Salutaris: A wee bit of a teaser

HANCE HAD lived in a time when homes were heated and brightened by fire, and the only way to make a fire was with the contents of a tinderbox. So he had held fire in his hands; encouraged it by poking logs around a fireplace; observed it dancing on the tips of candles. He understood it: heat rose; flames were coolest at their base.

As smoke and ash roiled around the parlor, he pulled Emmy and Renato, who had jumped up screaming from the couch, down to the floor, where the air was less poisonous. Listening for noises that would indicate the rectory was about to collapse, he led them, crawling, down the hallway to the entrance vestibule. He felt the door, finding naught but a customary tepidness. The fire had not reached the threshold.

It would, though. Soon. As he threw open the door, he perceived flames everywhere on the ground and above. The air was an almost-unbreathable brew of charred furnishings, carbonized trees, and the chem-lab reek of gasoline. Blobs of silhouettes agitated against the undulating scarlet light as campers headed toward the road in a frantic quest for safety.

A man and woman dragged a little boy through the dirt. The child was screaming, kicking, writhing to break free. The screams were more than noise. Hance distinguished rising and falling sounds that denoted words. Emmy understood. “His pet is in there!”

It was then that Hance recognized the boy who owned the guinea pig. He knew what was going through the child’s mind: the vision of a blackened potato of a corpse; the knowledge that he would never see his pet again; the supposition of the horror that the little thing must be feeling, trapped in its cage; the guilt of being made to stand back and watch; the anticipation of irretrievable loss.

Hance might have done nothing for Mary Guaire, but he would spare the boy the sickening memory of a sickening night. There was no time to explain. He pushed Emmy and Renato toward the street, yelling, “Get out of here,” and entered the inferno not daring to look back.

The heat seared him through his clothes and he could taste the smoke without opening his mouth, but the fire was so unlike any he had seen before that he didn’t believe it was real. He had reached into the flames around the corpse he had seen in the rehearsal room, hadn’t he? Yes, he had reached into the flames, and they had disappeared along with the rest of the vision. The flames hadn’t hurt him then; they shouldn’t hurt him now. They couldn’t hurt him. Not now.

Please, not now.

Fire dripped around him as he found the spot the boy and his family called home. The guinea pig was breathing but crouching and fluffed up in fear. It made no fuss as Hance lifted it from the cage. With the little creature safely tucked in his blazer, Hance turned to run but tripped on a mound he hadn’t seen in the murk. The length and soft solidity of the thing suggested a person. With his free hand he grabbed the back of the body’s clothing and inched the inert mass along the ground. Suddenly the mass twisted. A hand gripped his throat. He heard Marsden.

“Here I am, John. You can take your revenge on me and be undone among the flames, or you can follow me out of here and live. No one will miss you. They won’t even remember you. Everything will be as it was before you went to Paris. Everything. Even Mary will be there. What do you say? It’s your choice!”

The hand dropped. Laughing, the mound re-shaped on the ground with outspread arms, like Christ on the Cross, and then dissolved.

Excerpt: from ‘Salutaris': Darkness Beyond Nature

THE FINAL rehearsal for the spring concert was held in Renato’s church at night. It could have taken place in the afternoon, but Hance wanted his singers to get the feel of performing the Tallis and watching for their cues in dim lighting. Only one of the choirs was front and center in the sanctuary. The choir with the strongest musicians was up in the choir loft, which was over the entrance. The remaining four choirs were positioned in pairs across from each other in the side aisles. The idea was to envelope the listeners in the piece’s layers of polyphony. It always worked.

Renato was edgy. Protestors had tossed garbage at campers who were leaving for work that morning, and a puddle of gasoline had been found in the driveway. Renato said he had called the police, but the officer was useless. “He thought one of the campers had brought in a container of gas for a portable generator. I told him there weren’t any generators because there wasn’t a source of electricity out there. He thought someone might have hooked up an extension cord to an outlet in the garage, but I didn’t see one then and I didn’t see one this evening.”

The orchestra had been setting up for the first part of the program when Renato pulled Hance aside to tell him this. Hance wished he was closer to the back door; he wanted to see for himself. “Did you hear anything running on electricity back there?”

“Nothing.”

“What about landscaping equipment? It’s spring. Some of those men work for landscapers. Maybe they’ve got leaf blowers.”

“Leaf blowers? Do you think somebody could walk off the job with a leaf blower attached to his body and nobody would notice?”

Hance remembered seeing backpack blowers with tubes the size of an elephant’s trunk affixed to the groundskeepers at the college. “I’m trying to be reasonable. What else could the gas be for? A barbecue grill?”

“There isn’t supposed to be any gas in the camp at all! It’s one of the ground rules. I thought you knew that.”

“I didn’t.”

“No gas, no propane. They aren’t even supposed to have cigarettes.”

“They’ve got to make fires for food and warmth with something.”

“Yes, but I draw the line at propane and gasoline. Matches and cigarette lighters are enough.”

“If you’re so concerned about the gas, then wait until a break and I’ll go out there with you and have a look around. Do you have a flashlight?”

Ren balked. “I don’t know, John. Maybe we should leave well enough alone.”

Never had Hance seen Renato in such a state. “What’s wrong? These are the people you’ve been sheltering since last September. What do you think is going on out there?”

“I don’t know. And that’s the problem. I do not know. It’s too quiet. And dark. As if the place is deserted. But I know it’s not.”

“Don’t some of them work at night?”

“It’s not that kind of quiet. It’s a stillness. A vacancy. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I smell nothing. And it’s cold. A raw, steely cold, like the interior of an unheated subway car.” Renato shivered. “Just thinking about it skeeves me out.”

“Good heavens, Ren, it’s your backyard! It’s no different now than when you saw it in daylight.”

“Except there was gas out there, and no one could say where it came from.”

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Be patient.”

Though Hance projected reason and calm, Renato’s news left him uneasy. He suspected Marsden was involved, but he refused to give in to fear. The best way to reject Marsden and to rally poor Renato was to press on as if nothing was the matter; nothing existed but the music.

The rehearsal was set up later than expected, started later than expected, and ran much, much later than expected. Hance never did go outside with Renato at the break because there was no break. Once they had warmed up, the choristers wanted to keep going. They had been enjoying some success with the Tallis in the rehearsal room; they couldn’t wait to hear what it sounded like in the church. Despite Renato’s plea for him to leave the lighting alone, Hance had the lights turned down far enough so the choirs could still read their music and see him. He brought his singers through the work until he was certain they were irrefutably confident with their lines and his directions..

When rehearsal was over and the musicians left for home, it was after midnight. Though the church would be locked for the night, Renato raised the lights and left them burning. Hance detected the quiet that his colleague had spoken about. It ranged well beyond the ordinary quiet of the premises. It was the hush of a house that was not a house, where the walls were the illusion of walls, the floor was the earth, the roof was the sky, and what he wore on his back was what had been hiding in his heart, exposed for all to see. He remembered Marsden and what Marsden had done to him on that patch of snowy earth.

Not again. Not tonight. Dear God, not tonight.

Renato was beside him, tentative. “Shall we?”

“Shall we what?”

“Go looking for where that gas came from.”

“I don’t think that skulking around in the dark, waking people out of a sound sleep, is the way to go about it.”

“What should we do?”

“Get some rest.” Hance pulled his car keys from his pocket.

“You’re going? Aren’t you too tired to drive? I can make coffee.”

No need to ask what was wrong. Hance smelled Renato’s fear.

Poor soul. He doesn’t want to be left alone.

Hance smiled. “Coffee sounds good, thanks. Emmy?”

She leaned against the pew, yawning, her arms wrapped around her backpack. “Coffee, yes,” she murmured, and with half-closed eyes went into the rectory with Hance and Renato.

Renato turned on every light he came upon. He asked Hance and Emmy if they’d mind helping him with the lights upstairs. There were so many, and he didn’t want do it all by himself.

“But you’re not by yourself, Father Ren,” Emmy said. Her tone held no allegation of cowardice, no presumption that he was being silly.

Still, Ren didn’t go upstairs. Nor did Hance make the ascent. He didn’t want to leave Renato and Emmy.

The three sat over empty cups, waiting for the coffee to brew. Emmy rested her temple against her fist, eyes closed. Renato had the inward stare of someone so seized by horrific possibilities that he’s lost his grip on the reality beneath his nose. Hance attempted to bring him back. “A shame you don’t have a piano.”

“I don’t play.”

“No, but every now and then you have company that does.”

“Oh.”

Renato reunited with his ruminations for some moments before telling Hance, “Sing something.”

Suffer little children. Especially when they’re little boys afraid of the dark. “I really don’t have a voice at this hour.”

“I don’t care. Just sing. It’s too quiet.”

The first thing that came to mind was “Gute Nacht,” from Schubert’s Die Winterreise. The range and phrasing were simple enough, and the text was not inappropriate.

“Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus . . .” A stranger I came, a stranger I leave.

“Der Mai war mir gewogen, mit manchem Blumenstrauss.” May woke me with its abundance of blossoming flowers.

Sluggish with sleep, Renato pushed himself away from the table and got as far as the parlor couch, where he fell upon the cushions. “Just keep singing, John.” The command was slurred. “Keep singing . . . so we know you’re here.”

We? Small chance Emmy would know anything. She was already asleep at the table, head on arm, her cup of coffee pushed well clear of her point of repose.

What was going on out there? When did it start? Why didn’t everyone notice when they were leaving the church after rehearsal?

Half muttering, half singing the rest of the song, Hance went into the parlor and peeked between the edge of the shade and the window frame. There was no moonlight or starlight or any suggestion of artificial light in the camp within the trees. There was only darkness so pure and dense—so undeniably absolute—that it couldn’t belong to nature. No wonder Renato was frightened. But sleep was no escape. There was no escape. There never had been and never would be.

Whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. Perhaps darkness shall cover me: and night shall be my light in my pleasures. But darkness shall not be dark to thee, and night shall be light as day: the darkness thereof and the light thereof are alike to thee.

“Father John?”

Emmy. She stood like a four-year-old, her arms limp at her sides. He imagined a teddy bear dangling from her fist. Her face was white, shining with tears. She sniffled.

He went to her, to draw her into his arms. As he reached for her every window burst, blasted to bits by a fire that had not grown by degrees but was there all at once, raging, enshrouding the rectory, the church and the woods.

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