“I couldn’t stop thinking long enough to become a baker.”
“Stop thinking about what?”
The fabric of reality. Structure.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t.
“I understood subatomic structure when I was six.”
“At six, I made a pretty cool fort out of Lego blocks. Towers and turrets and battlements and everything.”
His face brightened. “When I was a kid, I used forty-seven sets of Legos to build a crude model of quantum foam.”
I have no idea what quantum foam is.”
“To grasp it, you have to be able to envision a very small landscape, one ten-billionth of a millionth of a meter — and only as it exists within a speck of time that is one-millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second.”
“I’d need to get a better wristwatch.”
“This landscape I’m talking about is twenty powers of ten below the level of the proton, where there is no left or right, no up or down, no before or after.”
“Forty-seven sets of Legos would’ve cost a bunch.”
“My parents were supportive.”
“Mine weren’t,” I said. “I had to leave home at sixteen and get work as a fry cook to support myself.”
“You make exceptional pancakes, Odd Thomas. Unlike quantum foam, everybody knows what pancakes are.”
After creating a four-billion-dollar charitable trust to be owned and administered by the Church, John Heineman had disappeared. The media had hunted him assiduously for years, without success. They were told he had gone into seclusion with the intention of becoming a monk, which was true.
Some monks become priests, but others do not. Although they are all brothers, some are called Father. The priests can say Mass and perform sacred rites that the unordained brothers cannot, though otherwise they regard one another as equals. Brother John is a monk but not a priest.
Be patient. The organization of monastic life is harder to understand than pancakes, but it’s not a brain buster like quantum foam.
These monks take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. Some of them surrender humble assets, while others leave behind prosperous careers. I think it’s safe to say that only Brother John has turned his back on four billion dollars.
As John Heineman wished, the Church used a portion of that money to remake the former abbey as a school and a home for those who were both physically and mentally disabled and who had been abandoned by their families. They were children who would otherwise rot in mostly loveless public institutions or would be quietly euthanized by self-appointed “death angels” in the medical system.
On this December night, I was warmed by being in the company of a man like Brother John, whose compassion matched his genius. To be honest, the cookie contributed significantly to my improved mood.
A new abbey had been built, as well. Included were a series of subterranean rooms constructed and equipped to meet Brother John’s specifications.
No one called this underground complex a laboratory. As far as I could discern, it wasn’t in fact a lab, but something unique of which only his genius could have conceived, its full purpose a mystery.
The brothers, few of whom ever came here, called these quarters John’s Mew. Mew, in this case, is a medieval word meaning a place of concealment. A hideout.
Also, a mew is a cage in which hunting hawks are kept while they are molting. Mew also means “to molt.”
I once heard a monk refer to Brother John “down there growing all new feathers in the mew.”
Another had called these basement quarters a cocoon and wondered when the revelation of the butterfly would occur.
Such comments suggested that Brother John might become someone other than who he is, someone greater.
Because I was a guest and not a monk, I could not tease more out of the brothers. They were protective of him and of his privacy.
I was aware of Brother John’s true identity only because he revealed it to me. He did not swear me to secrecy. He had said instead, “I know you won’t sell me out, Odd Thomas. Your discretion and your loyalty are figured in the drift of stars.”
Although I had no idea what he meant by that, I didn’t press him for an explanation. He said many things I didn’t fully understand, and I didn’t want our relationship to become a verbal sonata to which a rhythmic Huh? Huh? Huh? was my only contribution.
I had not told him my secret. I don’t know why. Maybe I would just prefer that certain people I admire do not have any reason to think of me as a freak.
The brothers regarded him with respect bordering on awe. I also sensed in them a trace of fear. I might have been mistaken.
I didn’t regard him as fearsome. I sensed no threat in him. Sometimes, however, I saw that he himself was afraid of something.
Abbot Bernard does not call this place John’s Mew, as do the other monks. He refers to it as the adytum.
Adytum is another medieval word that means “the most sacred part of a place of worship, forbidden to the public, the innermost shrine of shrines.”
The abbot is a good-humored man, but he never speaks the word adytum with a smile. The three syllables cross his lips always in a murmur or a whisper, solemnly, and in his eyes are yearning and wonder and perhaps dread.
As to why Brother John traded success and the secular world for poverty and the monastery, he had only said that his studies of the structure of reality, as revealed through that branch of physics known as quantum mechanics, had led him to revelations that humbled him. “Humbled and spooked me,” he said.
Now, as I finished the chocolate-chip cookie, he said, “What brings you here at this hour, during the Greater Silence?”
“I know you’re awake much of the night.”
“I sleep less and less, can’t turn my mind off.”
A periodic insomniac myself, I said, “Some nights, it seems my brain is someone else’s TV, and they won’t stop channel surfing.”
“And when I do nod off,” said Brother John, “it’s often at inconvenient times. In any day, I’m likely to miss one or two periods of the Divine Office — sometimes Matins and Lauds, sometimes Sext, or Compline. I’ve even missed the Mass, napping in this chair. The abbot is understanding. The prior is too lenient with me, grants absolution easily and with too little penance.”
“They have a lot of respect for you, sir.”
“It’s like sitting on a beach.”
“What is?” I asked, smoothly avoiding Huh?
“Here, in the quiet hours after midnight. Like sitting on a beach. The night rolls and breaks and tosses up our losses like bits of wreckage, all that’s left of one ship or another.”
I said, “I suppose that’s true,” because in fact I thought I understood his mood if not his full meaning.
“We ceaselessly examine the bits of wreckage in the surf, as though we can put the past together again, but that’s just torturing ourselves.”
That sentiment had teeth. I, too, had felt its bite. “Brother John, I’ve got an odd question.”
“Of course you do,” he said, either commenting on the arcane nature of my curiosity or on my name.
“Sir, this may seem to be an ignorant question, but I have good reason to ask it. Is there a remote possibility that your work here might … blow up or something?”
He bowed his head, raised one hand from the arm of his chair, and stroked his chin, apparently pondering my question.
Although I was grateful to him for giving me a well-considered answer, I would have been happier if he had without hesitation said, Nope, no chance, impossible, absurd.
Brother John was part of a long tradition of monk and priest scientists. The Church had created the concept of the university and had established the first of them in the twelfth century. Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, was arguably the greatest mathematician of the thirteenth century. Bishop Robert Grosseteste was the first man to write down the necessary steps for performing a scientific experiment. Jesuits had built the first reflecting telescopes, microscopes, barometers, were first to calculate the constant of gravity, the first to measure the height of the mountains on the moon, the first to develop an accurate method of calculating a planet’s orbit, the first to devise and publish a coherent description of atomic theory.
As far as I knew, over the centuries, not one of those guys had accidentally blown up a monastery.
Of course, I don’t know everything. Considering the infinite amount of knowledge that one could acquire in a virtually innumerable array of intellectual disciplines, it’s probably more accurate to say that I don’t know anything.
Maybe monk scientists have occasionally blown a monastery to bits. I am pretty sure, however, they never did it intentionally.
I could not imagine Brother John, philanthropist and cookie-maker, in a weirdly lighted laboratory, cackling a mad-scientist cackle and scheming to destroy the world. Although brilliant, he was human, so I could easily see him looking up in alarm from an experiment and saying Whoops, just before unintentionally reducing the abbey to a puddle of nano-goo.
“Something,” he finally said. Sir?
He raised his head to look at me directly again. “Yes, perhaps something.”
“Yes. You asked whether there was a possibility that my work here might blow up or something. I can’t see a way it could blow up. I mean, not the work itself.”
“Oh. But something else could happen.”
“Maybe yes, probably no. Something.”
“But maybe yes. Like what?”
“What whatever?” I asked.
“Whatever can be imagined.”
“Have another cookie.”
“Sir, anything can be imagined.”
“Yes. That’s right. Imagination knows no limits.”
“So anything might go wrong?”
“Might isn’t will. Any terrible, disastrous thing might happen, but probably nothing will.”
“Probability is an important factor, Odd Thomas. A blood vessel might burst in your brain, killing you an instant from now.”
At once I regretted not having taken a second cookie.
He smiled. He looked at his watch. He looked at me. He shrugged. “See? The probability was low.”
“The anything that might happen,” I said, “supposing that it did happen, could it result in a lot of people dying horribly?”
“Yes, sir. Horribly.”
“That’s a subjective judgment. Horrible to one person might not be the same as horrible to another.”
“Shattering bones, bursting hearts, exploding heads, burning flesh, blood, pain, screaming — that kind of horrible.”
“Maybe yes, probably no.”
“More likely, they would just cease to exist.”
“No, it’s different. Death leaves a corpse.”
I had been reaching for a cookie. I pulled my hand back without taking one from the plate.
“Sir, you’re scaring me.”
A settled blue heron astonishes when it reveals its true height by unfolding its long sticklike legs; likewise, Brother John proved even taller than I remembered when he rose from his chair. “I’ve been badly scared myself, badly, for quite a few years now. You learn to live with it.”
Getting to my feet, I said, “Brother John … whatever this work is you do here, are you sure you should be doing it?”
“My intellect is God-given. I’ve a sacred obligation to use it.”
His words resonated with me. When one of the lingering dead has been murdered and comes to me for justice, I always feel obliged to help the poor soul.
The difference is that I rely both on reason and on something that you might call a sixth sense, while in his research Brother John is strictly using his intellect.
A sixth sense is a miraculous thing, which in itself suggests a supernatural order. The human intellect, however, for all its power and triumphs, is largely formed by this world and is therefore corruptible.
This monk’s hands, like his intellect, were also God-given, but he could choose to use them to strangle babies.
I did not need to remind him of this. I only said, “I had a terrible dream. I’m worried about the children at the school.”
Unlike Sister Angela, he did not instantly recognize that my dream was a lie. He said, “Have your dreams come true in the past?”
But this was very … real.”
He pulled his hood over his head. “Try to dream of something pleasant, Odd Thomas.”
“I can’t control my dreams, sir.”
In a fatherly way, he put an arm around my shoulders. “Then perhaps you shouldn’t sleep. The imagination has terrifying power.”
I was not conscious of crossing the room with him, but now the arrangement of armchairs lay behind us, and before me, a door slid soundlessly open. Beyond the door lay the antechamber awash in red light.
Having crossed the threshold alone, I turned to look back at Brother John.
“Sir, when you traded being just a scientist for being a monk scientist, did you ever consider, instead, being a tire salesman?”
“What’s the punch line?”
“It’s not a joke, sir. When my life became too complicated and I had to give up being a fry cook, I considered the tire life. But I came here instead.”
He said nothing.
“If I could be a tire salesman, help people get rolling on good rubber, at a fair price, that would be useful work. If I could be a tire salesman and nothing else, just a good tire salesman with a little apartment and this girl I once knew, that would be enough.”
His violet eyes were ruddy with the light of the vestibule. He shook his head, rejecting the tire life. “I want to know.”
“Know what?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said, and the door slid shut between us.
Polished-steel letters on brushed steel: PER OMNIA SAECULA SAECULORUM.
For ever and ever.
Through hissing doors, through buttery light and blue, I went to the surface, into the night, and locked the bronze door with my universal key.
LIBERA NOS A MALO said the door.
Deliver us from evil.
As I climbed the stone steps to the abbey yard, snow began to fall. Huge flakes turned gracefully in the windless dark, turned as if to a waltz that I could not hear.