South

South

In Issue 74 by Ed Davis

Standing at the great man’s door, I hesitated. I was intimidated—who wouldn’t be, faced with the prospect of interviewing a living legend, a reclusive one at that? Also, there was the question of my journalistic skills, depending as they did on one undergrad course. But Edith Anne, the kind editor at the Shawnee Springs News, had taken my measure with her intense grey eyes behind huge round red-framed glasses. She seemed to like it that I’m a newcomer to town “with a needed outside perspective.” She didn’t seem to mind that I’m part-time pastor at Bethesda Presbyterian. (I didn’t share that only a few weeks ago I’d been full-time.)

She hired me on the spot, a very good thing since the half-salary my pastoral demotion entailed wasn’t enough to live on. With what the News would pay me as a reporter, I might not have to go home in disgrace to live with my mother in Hopewell, Virginia. And if I did well, the editor said she’d give me more work, even hinting at the possibility of full-time someday.

After weeks of covering council and board of education meetings, I’d jumped at the chance to write a retrospective profile of Declan E. A. Quinn, who’d written a column about nature for the News for twenty-five years. “He’s our Henry David Thoreau,” she’d said, meaning Handle with care. If I  blew this assignment, I might not even get another school board meeting, much less achieve full-time employment, which I’d need it in order to stay in Shawnee Springs. I increasingly thought of this little hippy village as the place I wanted to call home.

I knocked, waited fifteen seconds, and knocked again. Then again, louder.

While waiting, I peered behind me through the nearly impenetrable wall of forsythia hiding the house. Beyond the tangle lay a stunning mid-June afternoon. Inside the shade of the crumbling little porch, I felt ten degrees cooler. A bird-dropping-bespattered dull green Subaru Forester was parked on the street behind a large, rusting RV. The vehicle’s presence made me certain he was in there, as did the soft golden glow spilling from the window. Was the legend ignoring me? Had he changed his mind?

 I had plenty of questions for the writer who knew the names of every single wildflower and bird, and, more astonishingly, exactly when and where you’d find them in the southern part of  the thousand-acre preserve adjacent the village known as Glenora Wood. How he wrote such poetic yet ruthlessly unsentimental prose was beyond me. Edith Anne told me she’d never met him—only Marjorie, the receptionist to whom he delivered his typed column every Monday, ever saw him.

“His fans are legion,” she said, shaking her head. “They’d go bonkers if his column suddenly disappeared. Which it will someday. The man’s in his eighties. That’s why we want to honor him while he’s still around.”

Along with the usual biographical stuff, I longed to ask him if he, the local legend of Glenora’s South, had ever met the local legend of the North, ghostly Joe Odom. I had—but then, he’d vanished without a trace. My considerable efforts to locate the Native American-looking kid with the long black braids came to naught. Enigmatic, eccentric Mr. Quinn might shed some light on the mystery.

If I could only get the recluse to answer the door.

So far, I’d ignored the window, not wanting to see him before he wanted to be seen. Now, glancing over, I saw a nearly bald head above the lounger. He’d been sitting right there while I banged away? Now I was mad. I seized the knob and the door creaked open.

“Mr. Quinn?” I said softly. Nothing. Then louder: “Are you all right?”

Sensing something wrong, I eased into the room. Light radiated from a lamp beside the lounger where the big man sprawled, shadowing more than illuminating the space, giving it the feel of a castle library. A faded floral rug covered most of the rough wooden floor. My interview subject’s face, chin dipping toward his chest, was half-lit. His scrappy grey beard and thinning hair emphasized his age. Was he dead? Heart hammering, I perched on the chair across the room and studied him until I’d ascertained his chest did indeed rise and fall.

After repeating his name several times to no avail, I found myself less and less willing to disturb him. But if I weren’t going to awaken him, why didn’t I leave? Maybe it was God (even though He and I weren’t on the best of terms lately) who made me stay.

I looked around. Beyond the dim living room and through a doorway was what appeared to be a greenhouse, alive with sunshine that didn’t reach this room. Beside the sleeping man on a reading table lay several books, the topmost one entitled The Imitation of Christ. Beside it lay a rosary with light blue gemstones. The attached wooden crucifix shone like polished oak in the lamp’s glow. I glanced away, fixating on an old-fashioned record player like the one Mom still had in the attic. A pile of albums sat beside it. Leaning forward to make out the top title, I heard a growl.

“Who the hell are you?”

I sat back quickly. Burning blue eyes raked my face.

“Peter Owens, sir . . . here to interview you? When you didn’t answer the door, I saw you sitting here. I came on in because I thought you  might be, uh—”

“Dead? Well, I’m not.” He squinted at me. “Interview, you say?”

“Yes. For the Shawnee Springs News. A retrospective on—”

“Mother Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” He let his head loll back on a once-white antimacassar. “What have I done? Who did you say you are?”

“Peter Owens, a reporter for—”

“Got that. I mean . . . who are you?”

The question rattled me. Did he want more credentials, more biography?

“I relocated here from Virginia about two years ago. I’m part-time pastor at Bethesda Presbyterian—which doesn’t pay all the bills, so I took this job to—”

His laughter bubbled up from his core like a great gob of lava. He pounded fists on the armrests.

A part-time religious! What in holy hell is the world coming to?” He’d made this speech to the ceiling. Now he clapped his gaze back on me. “Is your flock half baptized, your prayers half said? Do you kneel on one knee only?”

Amazingly, I found myself unoffended. From a certain perspective, a journalist pastor was kind of funny.

“Mr. Quinn,” I said, striving for deadpan (difficult with my lips quivering), “you are looking at possibly the most half-assed pastor the Lord has yet seen fit to unloose on the world.”

I hoped he’d laugh again; instead, he waxed solemn.

“You’re here to unmask me, after all these years hiding out in my lair.”

Since it wasn’t a question, I didn’t answer. I felt I’d made confession enough for the time being. Closing his eyes, he sighed, gripping the lounger’s worn armrests like a nervous flier in a jet about to scream down the runway. The rosary’s light blue gemstones matched its owner’s eyes.

“All right then,” he muttered. “I surrender.”

The lounger’s footrest clamped down hard and locked like a rifle bolt, the chair ejecting its occupant to tower above me, at least six feet of sinew and steel. When he stuck out his huge hand, I offered mine and he yanked me up nearly hard enough to dislocate my shoulder. Not only was he not dead, the man was strong.

“You up for a walk and talk, Mr. Owens?”

Nursing my fingers, I nodded. After awakening the dragon inside his cave, I was more than ready for sunshine and fresh air.

We walked to Peckham’s Pond at the village’s northern edge, where we now watched bumblebees graze the array of wildflowers beside the shining water. After last week’s rain, the newly mown grass gleamed. I couldn’t believe I’d lived in the village almost two years and had never even heard of this blissful paradise. My eye was immediately attracted to the willows on the other side, dipping their branches along with a lone fisherman’s line into still water. Panting from the heat and humidity—it’d been challenging to keep up with my companion—I was grateful when he pointed to a stone bench.

With our butts parked side by side, he leaned forward and clasped his hands, as if resigned. “So what do you want to know, Peter Owens?”

Before I could tweeze my Moleskine notebook out of my cargo shorts, he added, “I want you to know I hate this. I have avoided being known here for a quarter of a century. I live in the southern wild, not in this town. My residence here is for convenience only. I’ve submitted to your invasion of my privacy for three reasons only.”

“I respect that completely, sir. I intend only to—”

He halted me with a raised hand.

“First, I do it for my continued employment with the News. I like being known that way, the way I’ve chosen.” The face he turned on me was startlingly vulnerable. “A mask, you see. One of several.”

“And . . . secondly?”

“I respect Edith Anne Chatham.”

“She’s a great editor, loaded with integrity.”

“I don’t care a fig about that. It’s that she didn’t make me reapply as the others did.”

“Others?”

The look he gave me next would’ve withered a sunflower. “I forget you’re a compete neophyte—but not, so far, a nincompoop. There’ve been five editors since Glen Matthews agreed to run my column in 1983.”

I blushed beneath his rebuke. “And third?”

The ironic grin again, seen in profile. He had a Roman nose: curved, noble. Intimidating.

“You’re half-arsed. Like me.”

The laugh, not quite as raucous as before, evaporated my blush. Surreptitiously, I managed to liberate my Moleskine and find a blank page while I waited for him to speak again.

“I, too, was a religious, my boy. Eons ago, I was hell bound for the priesthood.”

I recalled the rosary I’d seen.

 “You attended seminary?”

He nodded sadly, looking his age for the first time since awakening. “Fifty-five years ago, Mr. Owens. More than half my lifetime ago. Then it was off to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, a beautiful Benedictine monastery in the country beyond Detroit. I’d made solemn vows and was a mere two years from priesthood before I left.”

Still gazing forward, he patted my knee. He remained silent so long, I felt compelled to speak.

“Why did you leave, Mr. Quinn, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Call me Declan and I shall call you Peter.” He waved toward the willows and fisherman. “For this. I chose Nature over St. Benedict and his rule.” A chuckle so low it was more a growl. “I never had a problem with God. I have a problem with the Church and its endless rules and rituals. All that liturgy, while I couldn’t wait to get outside into the fields where God was.” He paused then pointed. “See the heron?”

Squinting, I glimpsed a slate-grey bird standing on stilts beneath the willows, invisible until he pointed. Before I could utter some platitude, he turned fully toward me. “You’re happy with the Presbyterians?”

The blissful images and hum and song of insects and birds had lulled me. With a jolt I snapped back.

“I thought I was. Then I wandered into Glenora Wood and met a guy who might be a ghost.”

“Ghost, you say?”

“Have you ever seen or heard of a young Native American-looking boy who lives in the Glen—north Glen,” I corrected myself, remembering the man beside me was undisputed King of the South.

He waved it away. “Ah yes, the boy who becomes a bird. Stuff and nonsense, Grimm’s fairy tales. I’ve heard plenty of them during my tenure here. Exactly what I hate about this town.”

I considered dropping it, but I wanted our relationship to be founded on trust.

“I met him.”

“How could you have, if he’s a ghost?”

“He has ghost-like qualities, like disappearing, but he saved me from possibly drowning.”

He seemed to consider it. I’d wait to tell him about my night in the pine forest when I was visited by what sounded like a great raptor, plus the next day when, after observing a bald eagle at the site of the swinging bridge, I’d hiked up to the boy’s old camp, climbed up and over the rocks and found no trace of him. I could tell the man beside me wasn’t in the mood to hear it. I’d tell him another day. If there’d be another day. Whatever happened now would determine whether we’d meet again.

“Been all over Glenora, have ye?”

“Only the north end, so far. But I hope to explore the southern part one day very soon.”

I was afraid to go there. Not that I believed actual harm would come to me, though Quinn did chronicle several sightings of wild dog packs. I was afraid I might encounter something I wasn’t ready to face inside myself. As if mind-reading, he punched my arm companionably.

“There’s melancholy in the South. And death. Nevertheless, we shall plumb its depths together someday, you and I.”

My heart rose from watery depths into shimmering air. Then euphoria turned to panic. My heart might’ve been full but my page was empty. And the man beside me was preparing to fly.

“But, uh, what,” I sputtered, striving to clap my reporter cap back on, “did you do after quitting the Church—I mean, you know, for a living?”

He was already walking away, hands pocketed, whistling a complicated tune mingling seamlessly with birdsong. I ran to catch up, jamming my notebook into my shorts pocket.

Fortunately, Declan wanted to meet me again. At his place. The room where we had tea was a solarium, its skylights illuminating huge plants with leaves often dwarfing human hands. Thick smoke from his pipe overpowered the chlorophyll. Declan was a man of some contradictions. He loved nature but smoked, railed about global warming but owned the gas-guzzling motor home parked out front. Plus, he ate at Taco Bell in Xenia two or three times a week. While Dixieland jazz wafted in from the living room, we sipped harsh black tea. After Declan introduced me to all the plants, common as well as Latin names, the interrogation began. Mine.

“So ye’ve a mother, have you?”

I blushed. On the walk back from Peckham’s Pond, I’d unwisely let drop the fact that I might need to return home if I couldn’t pay my bills.

“I do. Thankfully, the extra money I earn at the News might mean I don’t have to return to living with her. I might be able to stay in town.”

“A mixed blessing, that. And yer pa?”

“Dad died when I was in tenth grade.”

“Mine never returned from France after D-Day. Like you, I’m married to me own mum.”

Though I expected his raucous laugh to accompany such an admission, he just sucked on his pipe and gazed into the middle distance. After a bit, he continued.

“My old man left us before I was old enough to notice, so I became Ma’s last, best hope. And what is that for an Irish mum? To make of her boy a priest, of course. A book rat, antisocial from infancy on, I acquiesced with her desire for a long time.”

While he wandered in the past, I took the opportunity to look around. On the cherrywood sideboard beside the Bushmills Irish whiskey sat a beautifully framed photograph of a middle-aged woman, grey hair swept up in a wave atop her head. She wore the same fierce gaze her son had laid upon me the day I’d brought him back to life. Abruptly my host returned.

“Don’t lead a default life, as I did, Peter. Take the bull by the balls your own self, mater be damned. She, not I, went to seminary; she joined the Benedictines, such was her plan. Meanwhile, I played hooky from the Church’s rules every chance I got, drenching the hem of the black habit to wade the marsh, flapping those ridiculous sleeves like wings at the crows, longing to join them in their canny witness of the wild.”

I smiled at the images he’d conjured, but he remained solemn.

“A monk’s life wasn’t all bad,” he continued more mildly. “Being allowed by the abbot to work alone as a forester was my salvation. Trying to get along with a hundred brothers, though, was like having my skin flayed.”

“I know what you mean,” I injected, surprising myself. “I realize now that Mom wanted the ministry more than I did.”

Declan just nodded, wreathed in blue smoke. Since pastoring the Presbys, I’d begun to see how ill-suited I was for my vocation. I enjoyed reading scripture, praying and writing sermons; however, I did not enjoy watching congregants nod off while I practically danced on the altar trying to hold their interest. As for kowtowing to deacons . . . Declan’s voice broke into my reverie.

“Not even solemn vows would assuage Brigid Quinn. Ma wanted, through me, to become a priest.”

Smoke distorted his features—plus I was distracted by my thoughts—or I might’ve been better prepared for what ensued.

“Goddamn her!” he exploded, hurling his pipe to the floor beneath his mother’s framed photo. In the roaring silence that followed, I kept still and tried not to fret that the hot ashes would do damage to the oak floor. In the stillness, insects drifted like motes in the silver light. When had the music stopped?

Finally, he returned, eyes still distant. His voice a full register lower, it was easy to imagine us inside the confessional box, a screen between us.

“She did her worst the year before she died, ordering me to stand for ordination. All that I’d done already, seminary, novitiate—it was hollow without the coup de grace.” He pounded the table, spilling tea. “Jesus and Mary, Mother of God, damn you all to hell!”

When he turned his eyes on me at last, they blazed, his mouth twisted. Naked before his rage, I was a cornered animal. It didn’t matter he was seeing not me but Brigid Quinn. I returned his gaze, best I could. I feared he might thrash me if I didn’t.

Abruptly slumping forward, he covered his face with his hands. It struck me like a gong that this vulnerability was the very thing he didn’t want anyone to see. We sat that way for a full minute. Witnessing the man’s rage—and the masklessness that followed—felt like the most real pastoring I’d yet done. Later, alone at the parsonage, I’d ask myself why and face the shameful failure that it indicated. Just then, though, I needed for us both to survive this moment, two men and their mothers; their absent fathers. At last, my host looked up, dazed.

“I owe you a sojourn into the South,” he rasped.

“Oh, you don’t need—”

“We’ll go soon. Deep in early fall is best.”

Deep in early fall. The words excited me. Autumn had always been my favorite time of year. Also, I saw me and the braided boy standing beside the stream just before he turned, left me and walked across. Then I saw the stones gleaming just beneath the water.

As weeks passed, we continued to meet in the solarium, eventually settling on Friday mornings as “our day.” While Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong blew their glorious horns in the living room, I confessed to my new mentor my failure to deliver on the promise I’d made the Presbys for a greatly expanded congregation. (“Humph,” he muttered. “If they need shills rather than pastors, they deserve to die.”) While sunshine carved out each green leaf, gilding oaken floor and sideboard, we became friends.

He talked more and more comfortably about himself. His lilting rhythms and Irish locutions were, I realized, not affectation but the living embodiment of his mother’s voice. And though he never mentioned Brigid Quinn again during our solarium teas, I’d glance at the burnt place on the floor beneath her photograph and know she was with us.

Though I sensed he stayed up late with the rosary, aided by the Bushmills displayed prominently on the sideboard, the strongest drink he ever offered me was English Breakfast tea, with half and half and “a wee dram” of local honey. We never discussed whether our conversations were on or off the record. He often repeated himself, forgetting what he’d told me only minutes earlier. One oft-repeated theme was how he longed to leave, how, in fact, he’d sometimes gas up the RV—"The Behemoth”—and head south on I-75, turning around after a couple hundred miles.

“Last time I made it to Lexington. You see, Peter, an old man wants water and warmth at the end of his days. At least this one does. I lived in Bermuda a while—best year of my life, riding around on a Moped, not a care in the world. I’d like to die in a warm place.”

I detected a faraway gaze before he continued.

“I taught for a while—all Catholic high schools have a religion department. I believed myself entitled to profit from my ill-considered immersion in the Word. Alas, I wound up excoriating as often as lecturing the boneheads—can you believe it?”

 Yes, I could. Declan E.A. Quinn did not suffer fools readily. But I displayed my best poker face. Maybe my new friend’s best quality was that he knew he was a contemptuous narcissist—but, I believed, a well-intentioned contemptuous narcissist.

“So,” he went on, “I quit after a couple of years. I needed something I could do alone here in the hermitage in peace and quiet. Since every work of nonfiction requires an excellent index, I  tried my hand at the craft, and became, if I may say so, one of the best damn indexers in North America. Many publishers agreed. Botany textbooks were my specialty—also works on medieval Church history and post WW II big band jazz—until I nearly went blind and had to retire.”

Amazing. All I could do was smile and shake my head at his finding a vocation so like a monk’s but one without other monks. Or abbots, or liturgy or work in the fields.

“Ha! And you thought writing a weekly column for a one-horse newspaper paid the water and electric!” He leaned forward, feigning confidentiality. “I charge the News nothing. ‘T’was indexing that kept me in whiskey, tobacco and tacos all these years.” He pointed his pipe like a saber. “Stay alert, my boy. Ye’ll find your own scam!”

Scam indeed. He and his ilk, invisible until needed and lamented when missing (or incompetent), had all my life given me the keys required to find needles in haystacks. I lifted my mug.

“To blessed indexers, who shall inherit the earth.”

He lifted his, I knew, laced with whiskey.

“And to the pure in heart.” He was not smiling as his blue eyes cut through the haze. “Who shall see God.”

And the light poured down.

Summer became early fall. Edith Anne asked once or twice how “the Quinn piece” was going but dropped it after a while, assigning me other work that dominated our rushed conversations. I decided that apparently there was no deadline or she’d forgotten all about it. Meanwhile, my “research” continued, happily. Part-time pastoring left me plenty of time to cover council and school board meetings and I found myself able to stay up late writing the articles that mattered to me as much or more than the sermons nobody really heard.

Often my mind and imagination were too active afterward for sleep. Lying there, I wondered: would Declan ever take me into the South? Would I ever get up the courage to ask him about Joe Odom again? At last my day of reckoning arrived in an email:

“Friday we go south. Wear boots, bring water and binoculars. No stroll at the pond, this.”

When Declan picked me up around nine, the sun gleamed on the Forester’s hood. He was more gregarious than I’d ever seen him. While he chattered away on the drive down Griggs Mill Road, I flattered myself that he was joyous because he was baptizing an apostle. Yes, I’d made it all about me. He’d not be the only narcissist on our walk into the wild.

Road dipping precipitously, he slowed, pointing left, to the nearly invisible trail leading back into North Glenora. “Path back to the civilized and tame, the tried, true and lame!” he proclaimed. “BUT NOT TODAY! THIS IS THE DAY OF THE WILD!”

I mirrored his grin. Whatever the day brought, I didn’t care.

We parked at the side of the road near the confluence of Shawnee Springs Creek and the Little Miami River, stepped over the guardrail and struck a narrow path. Geese vee-ed silently overhead. A few more yards and we entered hardwood forest of red maple and yellow poplar. A few paces on, I felt the falling damp. How could it be raining on such a glorious morn of sunshine and blue sky! Ahead of me, my guide thrust out his chest and flung back his head.

“God’s tears!” he cried. “I timed our arrival perfectly for frost melt.”

Grinning, I lolled back my head, closed my eyes and let droplets baptize me. God’s tears indeed.

Very soon we emerged from woods onto prairie. Before us spread a shimmering field of goldenrod. In the foreground purple asters surrounded it like a protective border. Declan turned and pointed ahead to an even bigger astonishment: black wavering capes sat atop wide spreading branches of low, scraggly trees. I lifted my binoculars to my eyes. Buzzards—a whole committee!—drying their wings in the sun. Spectral sentinels at dusk, in dawn’s light the birds were as welcoming a sight as women hanging out laundry. Or monks lifting robed arms to heaven.

Declan unleashed a boisterous laugh that made the huge birds bounce on their branches.

“Hallelujah!” I exulted. The word never felt so holy on my lips.

Declan’s eyes shone. I spread my arms like wings, too, felt my fingertips become feathers. Memory unveiled a still shot of Joe Odom beside me that day at the raptor center, hunched forward, eyeing the eagle Tecumseh. Yes, yes, like that.

Before long, we plunged back into patchy forest along the river. Declan began naming the floral highlights, reminding me of the poetic litanies he unraveled in his columns: deep scarlet burning bush, orb-weaver spider’s web agleam with droplets, still-blooming Queen Anne’s Lace and purple clematis. And overhead, cackling grackles, quarreling crows, drumming pileated and downy woodpeckers on hollow shagbark hickories.

Though questions jumped to mind, I kept silent. Human voices seemed invasive here. The road was a long way off, no power lines visible. I’d left the mobile phone the church gave me (and expected me to carry during all waking hours) at the parsonage, knowing I couldn’t bear Declan’s scorn if it rang. The longer we hiked, the more vigilant I became. Even with Declan and his stout staff, a pack of dogs could tear us to shreds (the fact I’d never heard of such a thing happening out here didn’t help, such was the spell I was under).

What had felt liberating when we’d entered back at the road became isolation the further we walked. Not loneliness exactly—didn’t I have H.D. Thoreau himself leading me? Being out here made me face a living question, maybe the question. The one this respected elder had asked upon first laying eyes on me. Who are you? I could successfully avoid it alone in the parsonage, by turning on TV, looking out my window or calling someone. But here in the South, people were only in my head.

I picked up the pace to catch up. Before long, the path turned uphill and I was panting and sweating by the time we crested. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. Wisely, Declan had worn only a vest over his blue flannel shirt. If he wasn’t worried over deer ticks, I decided not to be.

Within a few more yards, the forest parted to reveal a meadow, beyond which stood pasturing cattle. Not ready for signs of civilization just yet, I felt a bit let down and might’ve said so except my guide was wordlessly leading us into the field which I now realized was bursting with wildflowers. So focused had I been on the farmland beyond, I hadn’t even noticed. And now, while we walked among the rainbow of late fall colors, I saw motion. Butterflies with deep blue wings soared upward. When one landed on my arm, I observed tiny golden dots on its wingtips.

“Swallowtail,” Declan murmured, waving his hand like a wand. As the weightless wonder departed, I saw the field was swathed in gold. Monarchs!

“They’re getting ready to make their Mexican voyage. Can you imagine, Peter? Thousands of miles to get home, reproducing along the way, so that it’s not you but your offspring that finally reaches the promised land. The sweetest sacrifice, eh?”

Beaming like a St. Paddy’s Day drunk, I nodded. Once, in the solarium, when I’d suggested how well his column served the community, Declan snapped, “Not a whit. It’s for me, my obsession. I’m a selfish, selfish man.”

I didn’t believe him—after all, he wrote his column for free—but I didn’t want to draw his wrath by arguing. After circumambulating the field in silence, we began our trek back.

Forty-five minutes later, we were nearing the roadway. I felt relief that we hadn’t been beset by dogs or become lost again. My happiness even extended to whatever lay ahead for me at Bethesda. Whatever came, I felt I could handle it now. The man walking ahead of me, my guide, would help, had helped me already by asking me the only question that really mattered. I still didn’t know the answer, but I felt closer to knowing.

Pausing, Declan glanced up at the sun blazing away in the middle of the sky.

“We’re still a good fifteen minutes from the car,” he said. “Time for a respite. Follow me.”

The old barn stood on a knoll above the river we heard rippling below. Beyond the doorless opening, I made out graffiti, beer cans and wine bottles.

“Unfortunately, it’s become a place for parties and trysts, but shelter for those suffering from heat, too.”

Inside, it felt a lot cooler. We both found rusty buckets to sit on. Despite the fact there’d been no stock sheltered here for decades, the air inside held faint traces of hay and manure. As we drank water and ate trail mix, it felt like the perfect conclusion to a perfect day.

Beside me, Declan chuckled. “I spent the night here once, right after coming to town. Wanted to see the stars without the town’s light pollution—turned out to be one of the cloudiest nights we’d had all summer. By the time I decided it was a wash, it was too dark to find my way back to the car, so”— he thrust a thumb behind us and grinned—"I slept in a manger. Just like baby Jesus.”

It reminded me of my own overnighter in the pine forest last January. It was the opening I’d been waiting for. Watching his face, waiting for an outburst, I recounted my experience of Joe Odom, from the meeting at the creek, to our visit to the raptor center and Camp Cattail, then the night in his lean-to.

“It’s been nine months and I’ve never seen him again,” I concluded.

His eyes had remained mild during my recitation.

“’Horatio,’” he quoted, sotto voce, “’there are more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’” He let me absorb dying Hamlet’s wisdom for a moment before adding: “You’ve an expanding mind, Peter, mine’s shrinking daily. Trust yours, and Godspeed.”

It sounded so much like a farewell, I must’ve looked shocked. He read my disappointment.

“Do you know why I agreed to let you interview me when I’d never allowed it before?”

I shook my head miserably.

“Your name. Owens is a surname representing two separate Celtic ethnicities: the Welsh from ab Owain meaning ‘son of Owen,’ and the Irish by the Gaelic surname Mac Eoghain.”

I must’ve looked completely flummoxed.

“Don’t you see, son! Brigid approved. She said, ‘For God’s sake, Declan, let that boy in.’ So I did. Not for God’s nor my mother’s but my own sake.”

I thought I could hear the river singing along with my heart. Declan E. A. Quinn believed in ghosts, too. And he’d called me son. I threw off all constraint.

“You didn’t betray your mother by not becoming a priest, Declan. You were being true to yourself and what you believed God wanted.”

He didn’t hesitate. “And sons’ promises to their mums mean nothing.”

I shot back before thinking: “Promises imposed by someone else’s unlived life should not be binding.”

“And God told you this is so?”

I’d said enough. While we waited for what came next, crickets and katydids were going crazy beyond the barn walls. He stood quickly.

“Best move on before we stiffen like roadkill.” He chuckled. “Or shall we stay and share the manger?”

I imagined how warm and close the enclosure would feel after lying beneath the icy vastness of stars. Would it feel wild or the opposite, safe as home? I rose to follow when he turned and clasped my shoulder.

“Perhaps it wasn’t Brigid who chose you, lad. It might’ve been God. Church be damned, the Old Man still speaks for himself. ”

Lighter now, we hiked back out the way we’d come.

Exhausted, I expected that night to be the best I’d yet spent in that cold, hollow parsonage. It was not to be. Joe Odom would’ve been a much friendlier ghost than those who visited, among them my old mentor Marion Frye looking at me with damning eyes as he stood at the altar and I sat below in the pew from which I’d watched him all those Sundays. He knew I’d replaced him and he didn’t like it. Then I saw Mom’s face the day I told her I had an interview at a church in Ohio. Her sorrowful countenance dissolved quickly into Amber’s, my former fiancé lovely as ever but with eyes full of hurt and betrayal. Refusing her dad’s assistant pastor offer had meant turning her down, too.

And finally Deacon Simon Warwick’s baleful gaze above his bulldog jowls as he says, “You’ve not enlarged us, Pete. In fact, you’ve shrunk the congregation down to nearly nothing.”

At last, I got up and sat by the front window for the better part of an hour looking out at the night, imagining Declan spreadeagled on the hillside on which the old barn sat, where he’d found enough darkness to see a million lights in the sky. Then a voice:

“Stinkin’ thinkin’ can cause you grief. Action’s better.”

There I stood with Joe on the bridge above the rumbling falls. It was the only advice he’d ever offered. In the absence of any from God (my fault, not His), I decided to take that advice, after which I returned to bed and eventually, blessedly, lost consciousness.

When I called Warwick the next day to tell him I was resigning, he acted neither surprised nor in the least bit sorry to hear it.

“All right, Pete, but feel free to stay till the end of the month. Preaching’s optional. We deacons have talked about rotating it among ourselves. I believe I—we—can do as well as you.”

Now I know for certain God exists. Without Warwick’s arrogance, what could’ve easily been the most shameful moment of my life left my heart rising, instead.

“Not to say,” he quickly added, “you haven’t done all right with the word. It’s more the lack of growth in the congregation we’d expected.”

I didn’t mind a man like him telling me I’d failed. He wasn’t the power I answered to. As soon as we hung up, I called Mom and told her what I’d just done. In the silence before she spoke, I saw, smelled and tasted old barnwood and straw, saw Declan’s mild eyes. Church be damned, God still speaks for himself.

“You really tried, honey, but they put an impossible burden on you. Now you can come home.”

“Thanks, Mom, but not yet. We’ll see.”

I expected her to argue but she didn’t. Ending the call, I arose on shaky new legs, put on jeans and boots and headed for the woods. At least one thing was settled: I knew who I wasn’t. My new mentor Declan would help me discover who I was.

So eager was I to tell Declan I’d quit the church, I could only keep myself from showing up unannounced at his door until tea-time on Friday. The usually open door was shut. I knocked hard and hollered as well. Nothing. I peered in the window. No one. Turning toward the street, I noticed what I hadn’t before. The Forester and the motor home were missing.

Turning back toward the house, I saw what I hadn’t before: a bulging envelope lay on the glider. It bore my name. I knew instantly what it contained and was tempted to leave it lying right where it was. When, after a few moments, I picked it up, it rattled. Damn you, Declan. I couldn’t help it. I’d already been abandoned by two fathers, my own and Marion Frye.

With sinking heart, I collapsed onto the glider and dumped the contents. Inside was a typed letter and a key. Eyes blurring, I saw us sitting on the stone bench that first day with the willow, heron and fisherman across the pond. It seemed to me now that seeds of betrayal had lurked in that deceptively pastoral scene.

Lowering my gaze, I read.

“By the time you get this, I’ll be headed south, seeking warm water. I hope never to return but to die in the sun, a beached whale.

Feel free to stay in the house until I decide how to dispense with it. Those plants will need watering. I want you to know it was your words that gave me the courage to leave. I am being true to myself for the first time in my life. I’m finally free to look for home, though I doubt I’ll find it at this late stage.

With great affection,

Declan Eamon Angus Quinn

P.S.—Edith Anne informed me that I can no longer write the column if I’m no longer a resident, which is a fair enough price to pay for liberation. Interested?”

I ripped the letter in half.

Great affection. Then why leave without telling me what he had to say to my face? The words I’d spoken to him in the barn now tasted bitter on my tongue. Did I think I was God?

I found an opening in the forsythia wall and hurled the key into the hostas. True, I’d need a place to stay in a week or two when Warwick kicked me out of the parsonage. But I wasn’t thinking about the deacon or homelessness. I was thinking about walking downtown and paying Edith Anne a visit. Of course, she’d kill the Quinn profile—the legend’s no longer a resident. I’d tell her I still want her to read what I’ve written; that, in fact, I’d stake my future at the News on the strength of the writing in that piece.

I’d ask if she knew anyone who’d rent me a living space really, really cheap. And beg her to employ me full-time. Because, without noticing, I’d found my own “scam”: writing—not like Declan E.A. Quinn, who composed only Wordsworthian odes to sacred spaces while staying aloof. I’d write the police report, help folks with their classifieds and continue to attend council and school board meetings. Given the chance, I’d become one who reports the doings of others, the great and the awful, providing the record, keeping deeds alive long after their creators have died or gone south to warmer climes. I’d nudge their deeds, some of them, toward history, if that’s where they belonged.

I glanced behind me and through the window at the lamp Declan had left burning for me. Now I knew who’d been dead that day I’d knocked and knocked.

Rising stiffly, I left the porch, stepped into the yard and knelt before the hostas. The least I could do was find the key and place it where the realtors could find it. I felt tentatively beneath the greenery, then sank my fingers into loose, giving soil. The dark earth embraced my hand and grasped me back.

About the Author

Ed Davis

Ed Davis' stories, essays and poems have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Multiplicity Review, The Plenitudes, Leaping Clear, Slippery Elm and Hawaii Pacific Review. His latest novel, The Psalms of Israel Jones (West Virginia University Press 2014), won the Hackney Award for an unpublished novel in 2010.

Read more work by Ed Davis .