“How much time do we have until … whatever?”
“Usually they show up a day or two ahead of the event. To savor the sight of those who are …” I was reluctant to say more.
Sister Angela finished my sentence: “… soon to die.”
“If there’s a killer involved, a human agent instead of, say, an exploding propane-fired boiler, they’re sometimes as fascinated with him as with the potential victims.”
“We have no murderers here,” said Sister Angela.
“What do we really know about Rodion Romanovich?”
“The Russian gentleman in the abbey guesthouse?”
“He glowers,” I said.
“At times, so do I.”
“Yes, ma’am, but it’s a concerned sort of glower, and you’re a nun.”
“And he’s a spiritual pilgrim.”
“We have proof you’re a nun, but we only have his word about what he is.”
“Have you seen bodachs following him around?”
Sister Angela frowned, short of a glower, and said, “He’s been kind to us here at the school.”
“I’m not accusing Mr. Romanovich of anything. I’m just curious about him.”
“After Lauds, I’ll speak to Abbot Bernard about the need for vigilance in general.”
Lauds is morning prayer, the second of seven periods in the daily Divine Office that the monks observe.
At St. Bartholomew’s Abbey, Lauds immediately follows Matins — the singing of psalms and readings from the saints — which begins at 5:45 in the morning. It concludes no later than 6:30.
I switched off the computer and got to my feet. “I’m going to look around some more.”
In a billow of white habit, Sister Angela rose from her chair. “If tomorrow is to be a day of crisis, I’d better get some sleep. But in an emergency, don’t hesitate to call me on my cell number at any hour.”
I smiled and shook my head.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The world turns and the world changes. Nuns with cell phones.”
“An easy thing to get your mind around,” she said. “Easier than factoring into your philosophy a fry cook who sees dead people.”
“True. I guess the equivalent of me would actually be like in that old TV show — a flying nun.”
“I don’t allow flying nuns in my convent,” she said. “They tend to be frivolous, and during night flight, they’re prone to crashing through windows.”
WHEN I RETURNED FROM THE BASEMENT computer room, no bodachs swarmed the corridors of the second floor. Perhaps they were gathered over the beds of other children, but I didn’t think so. The place felt clean of them.
They might have been on the third floor, where nuns slept unaware. The sisters, too, might be destined to die in an explosion.
I couldn’t go uninvited onto the third floor, except in an emergency. Instead I went out of the school and into the night once more.
The meadow and the surrounding trees and the abbey upslope still waited to be white.
The bellied sky, the storm unborn, could not be seen, for the mountain was nearly as dark as the heavens and reflected nothing on the undersides of the clouds.
Boo had abandoned me. Although he likes my company, I am not his master. He has no master here. He is an independent agent and pursues his own agenda.
Not sure how to proceed or where to seek another clue of what had drawn the bodachs, I crossed the front yard of the school, moving toward the abbey.
The temperature of blood and bone had fallen with the arrival of the bodachs; but malevolent spirits and December air, together, could not explain the cold that curled through me.
The true source of the chill might have been an understanding that our only choice is pyre or pyre, that we live and breathe to be consumed by fire or fire, not just now and at St. Bartholomew’s, but always and anywhere. Consumed or purified by fire.
The earth rumbled, and the ground shivered underfoot, and the tall grass trembled though no breeze had yet arisen.
Although this was a subtle sound, a gentle movement, that most likely had not awakened even one monk, instinct said earthquake. I suspected, however, that Brother John might be responsible for the shuddering earth.
From the meadow rose the scent of ozone. I had detected the same scent earlier, in the guesthouse cloister, passing the statue of St. Bartholomew offering a pumpkin.
When after half a minute the earth stopped rumbling, I realized that the primary potential for fire and cataclysm might not be the propane tank and the boilers that heated our buildings. Brother John, at work in his subterranean retreat, exploring the very structure of reality, required serious consideration.
I hurried to the abbey, past the quarters of the novitiates, and south past the abbot’s office. Abbot Bernard’s personal quarters were above the office, on the second floor.
On the third floor, his small chapel provided him with a place for private prayer. Faint lambent light shivered along the beveled edges of those cold windows.
At 12:35 in the morning, the abbot was more likely to be snoring than praying. The trembling paleness that traced the cut lines in the glass must have issued from a devotional lamp, a single flickering candle.
I rounded the southeast corner of the abbey and headed west, past the last rooms of the novitiate, past the chapter room and the kitchen. Before the refectory, I came to a set of stone stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, a single bulb revealed a bronze door. A cast bronze panel above this entrance bore the Latin words LIBERA NOS A MALO.
Deliver us from evil.
My universal key unlocked the heavy bolt. Pivoting silently on ball-bearing hinges, the door swung inward, a half-ton weight so perfectly balanced that I could move it with one finger.
Beyond lay a stone corridor bathed in blue light.
The slab of bronze swung shut and locked behind me as I walked to a second door of brushed stainless steel. In this grained surface were embedded polished letters that spelled three Latin words: LUMIN DE LUMINE.
Light from light.
A wide steel architrave surrounded this formidable barrier. Inlaid in the architrave was a twelve-inch plasma screen.
Upon being touched, the screen brightened. I pressed my hand flat against it.
I could not see or feel the scanner reading my fingerprints, but I was nonetheless identified and approved. With a pneumatic hiss, the door slid open.
Brother John says the hiss is not an inevitable consequence of the operation of the door. It could have been made to open silently.
He incorporated the hiss to remind himself that in every human enterprise, no matter with what virtuous intentions it is undertaken, a serpent lurks.
Beyond the steel door waited an eight-foot-square chamber that appeared to be a seamless, wax-yellow, porcelain vessel. I entered and stood there like a lone seed inside a hollow, polished gourd.
When a second heedful hiss caused me to turn and look back, no trace of the door could be seen.
The buttery light radiated from the walls, and as on previous visits to this realm, I felt as though I had stepped into a dream. Simultaneously, I experienced a detachment from the world and a heightened reality.
The light in the walls faded. Darkness closed upon me.
Although the chamber was surely an elevator that carried me down a floor or two, I detected no movement. The machinery made no sound.
In the darkness, a rectangle of red light appeared as another portal hissed open in front of me.
A vestibule offered three brushed-steel doors. The one to my right and the one to my left were plain. Neither door had a visible lock; and I had never been invited through them.
On the third, directly before me, were embedded more polished letters: PER OMNIA SAECULA SAECULORUM.
For ever and ever.
In the red light, the brushed steel glowed softly, like embers. The polished letters blazed.
Without a hiss, For ever and ever slid aside, as though inviting me to eternity.
I stepped into a round chamber thirty feet in diameter, barren but for a cozy arrangement of four wingback chairs at the center.
A floor lamp served each chair, though currently only two shed light.
Here sat Brother John in tunic and scapular, but with his hood pushed back, off his head. In the days before he’d become a monk, he had been the famous John Heineman.
Time magazine had called him “the most brilliant physicist of this half-century, but increasingly a tortured soul,” and presented, as a sidebar to their main article, an analysis of Heineman’s “life decisions” written by a pop psychologist with a hit TV show on which he resolved the problems of such troubled people as kleptomaniac mothers with bulimic biker daughters.
The New York Times had referred to John Heineman as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Two days later, in a brief correction, the newspaper noted that it should have attributed that memorable description not to actress Cameron Diaz after she had met Heineman, but to Winston Churchill, who first used those words to describe Russia in 1939.
In an article titled “The Dumbest Celebrities of the Year,” Entertainment Weekly called him a “born-again moron” and “a hopeless schlub who wouldn’t know Eminem from Oprah.”
The National Enquirer had promised to produce evidence that he and morning-show anchor Katie Couric were an item, while the Weekly World News had reported that he was dating Princess Di, who was not — they insisted — as dead as everyone thought.
In the corrupted spirit of much contemporary science, various learned journals, with a bias to defend, questioned his research, his theories, his right to publish his research and theories, his right even to conduct such research and to have such theories, his motives, his sanity, and the unseemly size of his fortune.
Had the many patents derived from his research not made him a billionaire four times over, most of those publications would have had no interest in him. Wealth is power, and power is the only thing about which contemporary culture cares.
If he hadn’t quietly given away that entire fortune without issuing a press release and without granting interviews, they wouldn’t have been so annoyed with him. Just as pop stars and film critics live for their power, so do reporters.
If he’d given his money to an approved university, they would not have hated him. Most universities are no longer temples of knowledge, but of power, and true moderns worship there.
At some time during the years since all that had happened, if he had been caught with an underage hooker or had checked into a clinic for coc**ne addiction so chronic that his nose cartilage had entirely rotted away, all would have been forgiven; the press would have adored him. In our age, self-indulgence and self-destruction, rather than self-sacrifice, are the foundations for new heroic myths.
Instead, John Heineman had passed years in monastic seclusion and in fact had spent months at a time in hermitage, first elsewhere and then here in his deep retreat, speaking not a word to anyone. His meditations were of a different character from those of other monks, though not necessarily less reverent.
I crossed the shadowy strand surrounding the ordered furniture. The floor was stone. Under the chairs lay a wine-colored carpet.
The tinted bulbs and the umber-fabric lampshades produced light the color of caramelized honey.
Brother John was a tall, rangy, broad-shouldered man. His hands — at that moment resting on the arms of the chair — were large, with thick-boned wrists.
Although a long countenance would have been more in harmony with his lanky physique, his face was round. The lamplight directed the crisp and pointed shadow of his strong nose toward his left ear, as if his face were a sundial, his nose the gnomon, and his ear the mark for nine o’clock.
Assuming that the second lighted lamp was meant to direct me, I sat in the chair opposite him.
His eyes were violet and hooded, and his gaze was as steady as the aim of a battle-hardened sharpshooter.
Considering that he might be engaged in meditation and averse to interruption, I said nothing.
The monks of St. Bartholomew’s are encouraged to cultivate silence at all times, except during scheduled social periods.
The silence during the day is called the Lesser Silence, which begins after breakfast and lasts until the evening recreation period following dinner. During Lesser Silence, the brothers will speak to one another only as the work of the monastery requires.
The silence after Compline — the night prayer — is called the Greater Silence. At St. Bartholomew’s, it lasts through breakfast.
I did not want to encourage Brother John to speak with me. He knew that I would not have visited at this hour without good reason; but it would be his decision to break silence or not.
While I waited, I surveyed the room.
Because the light here was always low and restricted to the center of the chamber, I’d never had a clear look at the continuous wall that wrapped this round space. A dark luster implied a polished surface, and I suspected that it might be glass beyond which pooled a mysterious blackness.
As we were underground, no mountain landscape waited to be revealed. Contiguous panels of thick curved glass, nine feet high, suggested instead an aquarium.
If we were surrounded by an aquarium, however, whatever lived in it had never revealed itself in my presence. No pale shape ever glided past. No gape-mouthed denizen with a blinkless stare had swum close to the farther side of the aquarium wall to peer at me from its airless world.
An imposing figure in any circumstances, Brother John made me think now of Captain Nemo on the bridge of the Nautilus, which was an unfortunate comparison. Nemo was a powerful man and a genius, but he didn’t have both oars in the water.
Brother John is as sane as I am. Make of that what you wish.
After another minute of silence, he apparently came to the end of the line of thought that he had been reluctant to interrupt. His violet eyes refocused from some far landscape to me, and in a deep rough voice, he said, “Have a cookie.”
IN THE ROUND ROOM, IN THE CARAMEL LIGHT, beside each armchair stood a small table. On the table beside my chair, a red plate held three chocolate-chip cookies.
Brother John bakes them himself. They’re wonderful.
I picked up a cookie. It was warm.
From the time I had unlocked the bronze door with my universal key until I entered this room, not even two minutes had passed.
I doubted that Brother John had fetched the cookies himself. He had been genuinely lost in thought.
We were alone in the room. I hadn’t heard retreating footsteps when I entered.
“Delicious,” I said, after swallowing a bite of the cookie.
“As a boy, I wanted to be a baker,” he said.
“The world needs good bakers, sir.”