The night did not seem as frigid as it had been earlier. Perhaps I had been colder in John’s Mew than I realized, and by comparison to that realm, the winter night seemed mild.
In moments, the flakes as big as frosted flowers gave way to smaller formations.
The air filled with fine shavings of the unseen clouds.
This was the moment that I had been waiting for at the window of my small guest suite, before Boo and bodach had appeared in the yard below.
Until coming to this monastery, I had spent my life in the town of Pico Mundo, in the California desert. I had never seen snow fall until, earlier in the night, the sky had spit out a few flakes in a false start.
Here in the first minute of the true storm, I stood transfixed by the spectacle, taking on faith what I had heard, that no two snowflakes are alike.
The beauty took my breath, the way the snow fell and yet the night was still, the intricacy of the simplicity. Although the night would have been even more beautiful if she had been here to share it with me, for a moment all was well, all manner of things were well, and then of course someone screamed.
THE SHARP CRY OF ALARM WAS SO BRIEF THAT you might have thought it was imagined or that a night bird, chased by snow to the shelter of the forest, had shrilled just as it flew overhead and away.
In the summer of the previous year, when gunmen stormed the mall in Pico Mundo, I had heard so many screams that I hoped my ears would fail me thereafter. Forty-one innocent people had been shot. Nineteen perished. I would have traded music and the voices of my friends for a silence that would exclude for the rest of my life all human cries of pain and mortal terror.
We so often hope for the wrong things, and my selfish hope was not fulfilled. I am not deaf to pain or blind to blood — or dead, as for a while I might have wished to be.
Instinctively, I hurried around the nearby corner of the abbey. I turned north along the refectory, in which the monks take their meals, and no lights were aglow at one o’clock in the morning.
Squinting through the screening snow, I scanned the night toward the western forest. If someone was out there, the storm hid him.
The refectory formed an inner corner with the library wing. I headed west again, past deep-set windows beyond which lay a darkness of ordered books.
As I turned the southwest corner of the library, I almost fell over a man lying facedown on the ground. He wore the hooded black habit of a monk.
Surprise brought cold air suddenly into my lungs — a brief ache in the chest — and expelled it in a pale rushing plume.
I dropped to my knees at the monk’s side, but then hesitated to touch him, for fear that I would find he had not merely fallen, that he had been beaten to the ground.
The world beyond this mountain retreat was largely barbarian, a condition it had been striving toward for perhaps a century and a half. A once-glorious civilization was now only a pretense, a mask allowing barbarians to commit ever greater cruelties in the name of virtues that a truly civilized world would have recognized as evils.
Having fled that barbaric disorder, I was reluctant to admit that no place was safe, no retreat beyond the reach of anarchy.
The huddled form on the ground beside me might be proof, more solid than bodachs, that no haven existed to which I could safely withdraw.
Anticipating his smashed face, his slashed face, I touched him as snow ornamented his plain tunic. With a shudder of expectation, I turned him on his back.
The falling snow seemed to bring light to the night, but it was a ghost light that illuminated nothing. Although the hood had slipped back from the victim’s face, I could not see him clearly enough to identify him.
Putting a hand to his mouth, I felt no breath, also no beard. Some of the brothers wear beards, but some do not.
I pressed my fingertips to his throat, which was still warm, and felt for the artery. I thought I detected a pulse.
Because my hands were half numb with cold and therefore less sensitive to heat, I might not have felt a faint exhalation, when I had touched his lips.
As I leaned forward to put my ear to his mouth, hoping to hear at least a sigh of breath, I was struck from behind.
No doubt the assailant meant to shatter my skull. He swung just as I bent forward, and the club grazed the back of my head, thumped hard off my left shoulder.
I pitched forward, rolled to the left, rolled again, scrambled to my feet, ran. I had no weapon. He had a club and maybe something worse, a knife.
The hands-on kind of killers, the gunless kind, might stave in with a club or strangle with a scarf, but most of them carry blades, as well, for backup, or for entertainment that might come as foreplay or as aftermath.
The guys in the porkpie hats, mentioned earlier, had blackjacks and guns and even a hydraulic automobile press, and still they had carried knives. If your work is deathwork, one weapon is not enough, just as a plumber would not answer an urgent service call with a single wrench.
Although life has made me old for my age, I am still fast in my youth. Hoping my assailant was older and therefore slower, I sprinted away from the abbey, into the open yard, where there were no corners in which to be cornered.
I hurled myself through the snowfall, so it seemed as though a wind had sprung up, pasting flakes to my lashes.
In this second minute of the storm, the ground remained black, unchanged by the blizzard’s brush. Within a few bounding steps, the land began to slope gently toward woods that I could not see, open dark descending toward a bristling dark.
Intuition insisted that the forest would be the death of me. Running into it, I would be running to my grave.
The wilds are not my natural habitat. I am a town boy, at home with pavement under my feet, a whiz with a library card, a master at the gas grill and griddle.
If my pursuer was a beast of the new barbarism, he might not be able to make a fire with two sticks and a stone, might not be able to discern true north from the growth of moss on trees, but his lawless nature would make him more at home in the woods than I would ever be.
I needed a weapon, but I had nothing except my universal key, a Kleenex, and insufficient martial-arts knowledge to make a deadly weapon of them.
Cut grass relented to tall grass, and ten yards later, nature put weapons under my feet: loose stones that tested my agility and balance. I skidded to a halt, stooped, scooped up two stones the size of plums, turned, and threw one, threw it hard, and then the other.
The stones vanished into snow and gloom. I had either lost my pursuer or, intuiting my intent, he had circled around me when I stopped and stooped.
I clawed more missiles off the ground, turned 360 degrees, and surveyed the night, ready to pelt him with a couple of half-pound stones.
Nothing moved but the snow, seeming to come down in skeins as straight as the strands of a beaded curtain, yet each flake turning as it fell.
I could see no more than fifteen feet. I had never realized that snow could fall heavily enough to limit visibility this much.
Once, twice, I thought I glimpsed someone moving at the limits of vision, but it must have been an illusion of movement because I couldn’t fix on any shape. The patterns of snow on night gradually dizzied me.
Holding my breath, I listened. The snow did not even whisper its way to the earth, but seemed to salt the night with silence.
I waited. I’m good at waiting. I waited sixteen years for my disturbed mother to kill me in my sleep before at last I moved out and left her home alone with her beloved gun.
If, in spite of the periodic peril that comes with my gift, I should live an average life span, I’ve got another sixty years before I will see Stormy Llewellyn again, in the next world. That will be a long wait, but I am patient.
My left shoulder ached, and the back of my head, grazed by the club, felt less than wonderful. I was cold to the bone.
For some reason, I had not been pursued.
If the storm had been storming long enough to whiten the ground, I could have stretched out on my back and made snow angels. But the conditions were not yet right for play. Maybe later.
The abbey was out of sight. I wasn’t sure from which direction I had come, but I wasn’t worried that I would lose my way. I have never been lost.
Announcing my return with an uncontrollable chattering of teeth, holding a stone in each hand, I warily retraced my route across the meadow, found the short grass of the yard again. Out of the silent storm, the abbey loomed.
When I reached the corner of the library where I had nearly fallen over the prone monk, I found neither victim nor assailant. Concerned that the man might have regained consciousness and, badly hurt and disoriented, might have crawled away, only to pass out once more, I searched in a widening arc, but found no one.
The library formed an L with the back wall of the guest wing, from which I had set out in pursuit of a bodach little more than an hour ago. At last I dropped the stones around which my hands were clenched and half frozen, unlocked the door to the back stairs, and climbed to the third floor.
In the highest hallway, the door to my small suite stood open, as I’d left it. Waiting for snow, I’d been sitting in candlelight, but now a brighter light spilled from my front room.
AT SHORTLY PAST ONE IN THE MORNING, THE guestmaster, Brother Roland, was not likely to be changing the bed linens or delivering a portion of the “two hogsheads of wine” that St. Benedict, when he wrote the Rule that established monastic order in the sixth century, had specified as a necessary provision for every guesthouse.
St. Bartholomew’s does not provide any wine. The small under-the-counter refrigerator in my bathroom contains cans of Coke and bottles of iced tea.
Entering my front room, prepared to shout “Varlet,” or “Blackguard,” or some other epithet that would sound appropriate to the medieval atmosphere, I found not an enemy, but a friend. Brother Knuckles, known sometimes as Brother Salvatore, stood at the window, peering out at the falling snow.
Brother Knuckles is acutely aware of the world around him, of the slightest sounds and telltale scents, which is why he survived the world he operated in before becoming a monk. Even as I stepped silently across the threshold, he said, “You’ll catch your death, traipsin’ about on a night like this, dressed like that.”
“I wasn’t traipsing,” I said, closing the door quietly behind me. “I was skulking.”
He turned from the window to face me. “I was in the kitchen, scarfin’ down some roast beef and provolone, when I seen you come up the stairs from John’s Mew.”
“There weren’t any lights in the kitchen, sir. I would’ve noticed.”
“The fridge light is enough to make a snack, and you can eat good by the glow from the clock on the microwave.”
“Committing the sin of gluttony in the dark, were you?”
“The cellarer’s gotta be sure things are fresh, don’t he?”
As the abbey’s cellarer, Brother Knuckles purchased, stocked, and inventoried the food, beverages, and other material goods for the monastery and school.
“Anyway,” he said, “a guy, he eats at night in a bright kitchen that’s got no window blinds — he’s a guy tastin’ his last sandwich.”
“Even if the guy’s a monk in a monastery?”
Brother Knuckles shrugged. “You can never be too careful.”
In exercise sweats instead of his habit, at five feet seven and two hundred pounds of bone and muscle, he looked like a die-casting machine that had been covered in a gray-flannel cozy.
The rainwater eyes, the hard angles and blunt edges of brow and jaw, should have given him a cruel or even threatening appearance. In his previous life, people had feared him, and for good reason.
Twelve years in a monastery, years of remorse and contrition, had brought warmth to those once-icy eyes and had inspired in him a kindness that transformed his unfortunate face. Now, at fifty-five, he might be mistaken for a prizefighter who stayed in the sport too long: cauliflower ears, portobello nose, the humility of a basically sweet palooka who has learned the hard way that brute strength does not a champion make.
A small glob of icy slush slid down my forehead and along my right cheek.
“You’re wearin’ snow like a poofy white hat.” Knuckles headed toward the bathroom. “I’ll get you a towel.”
“There’s a bottle of aspirin by the sink. I need aspirin.”
He returned with a towel and the aspirin. “You want some water to wash ‘em down, maybe a Coke?”
“Give me a hogshead of wine.”
“They must’ve had livers of iron back in Saint Benny’s day. A hogshead was like sixty-three gallons.”
“Then I’ll only need half a hogshead.”
By the time I toweled my hair half dry, he had brought me a Coke. “You come up the stairs from John’s Mew and stood there lookin’ up at the snow the way a turkey stares up at the rain with its mouth open till it drowns.”
“Well, sir, I never saw snow before.”
“Then, boom, you’re off like a shot around the corner of the refectory.”
Settling into an armchair and shaking two aspirin out of the bottle, I said, “I heard someone scream.”
“I didn’t hear no scream.”
“You were inside,” I reminded him, “and making a lot of chewing noises.”
Knuckles sat in the other armchair. “So who screamed?”
I washed down two aspirin with Coke and said, “I found one of the brothers facedown on the ground by the library. Didn’t see him at first in his black habit, almost fell over him.”
“Don’t know. A heavy guy. I rolled him over, couldn’t see his face in the dark — then someone tried to brain me from behind.”
His brush-cut hair seemed to bristle with indignation. “This don’t sound like St. Bart’s.”
“The club, whatever it was, grazed the back of my head, and my left shoulder took the worst of it.”
“We might as well be in Jersey, stuff like this goin’ down.”
“I’ve never been to New Jersey.”
“You’d like it. Even where it’s bad, Jersey is always real.”
“They’ve got one of the world’s largest used-tire dumps. You’ve probably seen it.”
“Never did. Ain’t that sad? You live in a place most of your life, you take it for granted.”
“You didn’t even know about the tire dump, sir?”
“People, they live in New York City all their lives, never go to the top of the Empire State Building. You okay, son? Your shoulder?”
“I’ve been worse.”
“Maybe you should go to the infirmary, ring Brother Gregory, have your shoulder examined.”