I had momentum, and the school was near, so I didn’t halt or turn, but crossed the tracks of whatever had passed in front of me. I didn’t pause to examine the prints it left. The fact that there were prints proved that I hadn’t been hallucinating.
No keening rose — just the stillness of imminent attack, the sense of something rearing up behind me to strike — and through my mind flew words like horde, host, legion, swarm.
Snow had drifted across the front steps of the school. The footprints of the searchers, who had been here seeking poor Brother Timothy, had already been erased by the wind.
I scrambled up the steps, tore open the door, expecting to be snatched off the threshold, one step from safety. I crossed into the reception lounge, shoved the door shut, leaned against it.
The moment that I was out of the wind, out of the eye-searing glare, in a bath of warm air, the pursuit seemed like a dream from which I had awakened, the beasts in the blizzard only figments of a particularly vivid nightmare. Then something scraped against the far side of the door.
HAD THE VISITOR BEEN A MAN, HE WOULD HAVE knocked. If it had been only the wind, it would have huffed and strained against the door until the planks creaked.
This scrape was the sound of bone on wood, or something like bone. I could imagine an animated skeleton clawing with mindless persistence at the other side of the door.
In all my bizarre experiences, I had never actually encountered an animated skeleton. But in a world where McDonald’s now sells salads with low-fat dressing, anything is possible.
The reception lounge was deserted. Had it been staffed, only a nun or two would have been there, anyway.
If something like what I had glimpsed in the storm was able to break the door off its hinges, I would have preferred better backup than the average nun could provide. I needed someone even tougher than Sister Angela with her penetrating periwinkle stare.
The doorknob rattled, rattled, turned.
Doubtful that my resistance alone would keep out this unwanted caller, I engaged the dead-bolt lock.
A scene from an old movie played in my memory: a man standing with his back pressed to a stout oak door, believing himself to be safe from preternatural forces on the farther side.
The film had been about the evils of nuclear energy, about how minimal exposure to radiation will overnight cause ordinary creatures to mutate into monsters and to grow gigantic as well. As we know, in the real world, this has had a devastating impact on the real-estate values in the monster-plagued communities near all of our nuclear power plants.
Anyway, the guy is standing with his back to the door, feeling safe, when a giant stinger, curved like a rhino horn, pierces the oak. It bursts through his chest, exploding his heart.
The monsters in this flick were only marginally more convincing than the actors, on a par with sock puppets, but the skewering-stinger scene stuck in my mind.
Now I stepped away from the door. Watched the knob rattling back and forth. Eased farther away.
I had seen movies in which one kind of fool or another, putting his face to a window to scope the territory, gets shotgunned or gets seized by a creature that doesn’t need a gun and that smashes through the glass and drags him screaming into the night. Nevertheless, I went to the window beside the door.
If I lived my entire life according to movie wisdom, I would risk winding up as spinning-eyed crazy as do many of our nation’s most successful actors.
Besides, this wasn’t a night scene. This was a morning scene, and snow was falling, so probably the worst that would happen, if life imitated films, would be someone breaking into “White Christmas” or the equivalent.
A thin crust of ice had crystallized across the exterior of the windowpanes. I detected something moving outside, but it was no more than a white blur, an amorphous shape, a pallid form quivering with potential.
Squinting, I put my nose to the cold glass.
To my left, the knob ceased rattling.
I held my breath for a moment to avoid further clouding the window with every exhalation.
The visitor on the doorstep surged forward and bumped against the glass, as if peering in at me.
I twitched but did not reel back. Curiosity transfixed me.
The opaque glass still masked the visitor even as it pressed forward insistently. In spite of the obscuring ice, if this had been a face before me, I should have seen at least the hollows of eyes and something that might have been a mouth, but I did not.
What I did see, I could not understand. Again, the impression was of bones, but not the bones of any animal known to me. Longer and broader than fingers, they were lined up like piano keys, although they were not in straight keyboards, but were serpentine, and curved through other undulant rows of bones. They appeared to be joined by a variety of knuckles and sockets that I observed, in spite of the veil of ice, were of extraordinary design.
This macabre collage, which filled the window from side to side, from sill to header, abruptly flexed. With a soft click-and-rattle like a thousand tumbling dice on a felt-lined craps table, all the elements shifted as if they were fragments in a kaleidoscope, forming a new pattern more amazing than the previous.
I leaned back from the window just far enough to be able to appreciate the entire elaborate mosaic, which had both a cold beauty and a fearsome quality.
The joints that linked these ranked rows of bones — if bones they were, and not insectile limbs sheathed in chitin — evidently permitted 360-degree rotation along more than one plane of movement.
With the dice-on-felt sound, the kaleidoscope shifted, producing another intricate pattern as eerily beautiful as the one before it, though a degree more menacing.
I got the distinct feeling that the joints between the bones allowed universal rotation on numerous if not infinite planes, which was not just biologically impossible but mechanically impossible.
Perhaps to taunt me, the spectacle remade itself once more.
Yes, I have seen the dead, the tragic dead and the foolish dead, the dead who linger in hatred and the dead who are chained to this world by love, and they are different from one another yet all the same, the same in that they cannot accept the truth of their place in the vertical of sacred order, cannot move in any direction from this place, neither to glory nor to an eternal void.
And I have seen bodachs, whatever they may be. I have more than one theory about them but not a single fact to support a theory.
Ghosts and bodachs are the sum of it. I do not see fairyfolk or elves, neither gremlins nor goblins, neither dryads nor nymphs, nor pixies, neither vampires nor werewolves. A long time ago, I stopped keeping an eye out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve because, when I was five, my mother told me that Santa was a wicked pervert who would cut off my peepee with a pair of scissors and that if I didn’t stop chattering about him, he would be certain to put me on his list and look me up.
Christmas was never the same after that, but at least I still have my peepee.
Although my experience with supernatural presences had been limited to the dead and bodachs, the thing pressed to the window seemed more supernatural than real. I had no idea what it might be, but I was reasonably confident that the words fiend and demon were more applicable than the word angel.
Whatever it was, thing of bone or thing of ectoplasm, it had something to do with the threat of violence that hung over the nuns and the children in their charge. I didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.
Apparently each time the bones shifted, they abraded the ice and shaved some off the glass, for this mosaic was clearer than those that had preceded it, the edges of the bones sharper, the details of the joints slightly more defined.
Seeking a better understanding of the apparition, I leaned close to the glass again, studying the disturbing details of this unearthly osteography.
Nothing supernatural has ever harmed me. My wounds and losses have all been at the hands of human beings, some in porkpie hats but most dressed otherwise.
None of the many elements in the bony mosaic trembled, but I had an impression that it was tight with tension.
Although my breath bloomed directly against the window, the surface did not cloud, most likely because my exhalations remained shallow, expelled with little force.
I had the disturbing thought, however, that my breath was without warmth, too frigid to cloud the glass, and that I inhaled darkness with the air but breathed no darkness out, which was a strange notion even for me.
I stripped off my gloves, shoved them in my jacket pockets, and placed one hand lightly on the cold glass.
Again the bones clicked, fanned, seemed almost to shuffle in the manner of a deck of cards, and rearranged themselves.
Shavings of ice in fact peeled from the outside of the window.
This new pattern of bones must have expressed a primal image of evil that spoke to my unconscious mind, for I saw nothing of beauty anymore, but felt as though something with a thin flicking tail had skittered the length of my spine.
My curiosity had ripened into a less healthy fascination, and fascination had become something darker. I wondered if I might be spellbound, somehow mesmerized, but I figured that I could not be spellbound if I remained capable of considering the possibility, though I was something, if not spellbound, because I found myself contemplating a return to the front steps to consider this visitor without the hampering interface of ice and glass.
A splintering sound came from a couple of the wooden muntins that divided the window into panes. I saw a hairline crack open in the white paint that sealed the wood; the fissure traced a crooked path along a vertical muntin, across a horizontal.
Under the hand that I still pressed to the window, the pane cracked.
The single brittle snap of failing glass alarmed me, broke the spell. I snatched my hand back and retreated three steps from the window.
No loose glass fell. The fractured pane remained within the framing muntins.
The thing of bone or ectoplasm flexed once more, conjuring yet another but no less menacing pattern, as if seeking a new arrangement of its elements that would apply greater pressure to the stubborn window.
Although it changed from one malignant mosaic to another, the effect was nonetheless elegant, as economical as the movements of an efficient machine.
The word machine resonated in my mind, seemed important, seemed revealing, though I knew this could not be a machine. If this world could not produce such a biological structure as the one to which I now stood fearful witness — and it could not — then just as surely, human beings did not possess the knowledge to engineer and build a machine with this phenomenal dexterity.
The storm-born thing flexed again. This newest kaleidoscopic wonder of bones suggested that, just as no two snowflakes in history have been alike, so no two of the thing’s manifestations would produce the same pattern.
My expectation was not merely that the glass would shatter, all eight bright panes at once, but also that every muntin would burst into splinters and that the frame would tear out of the wall, taking chunks of plaster with it, and that the thing would clamber into the school behind a cascade of debris.
I wished that I had a hundred gallons of molten tar, an angry cross-eyed ferret, or at least a toaster.
Abruptly, the apparition flexed away from the window, ceased to present a malevolent bony pattern. I thought it must be rearing back to throw itself through that barrier, but the attack did not come. This spawn of the storm became again just a pale blur, a trembling potential seen through frosted glass.
A moment later, it seemed to return to the storm. No movement shadowed the window, and the eight panes were as lifeless as eight TV screens tuned to a dead channel.
One square of glass remained cracked.
I suppose I knew then how the heart in a rabbit’s breast feels to the rabbit, how it feels like a leaping thing alive within, when the coyote is eye to eye and peels its lips back from teeth stained by years of blood.
No keening rose in the storm. Only the wind huffed at the window and whistled through the keyhole in the door.
Even to one accustomed to encounters with the supernatural, the aftermath of such an unlikely event sometimes includes equal measures of wonder and doubt. A fear that makes you shrink from the prospect of any further such experience is matched by a compulsion to see more and to understand.
I felt compelled to unlock and open the door. I quashed that compulsion, did not lift a foot, did not raise a hand, just stood with my arms wrapped around myself, as if holding myself together, and took long shuddery breaths until Sister Clare Marie arrived and politely insisted that I remove my ski boots.
GAZING AT THE WINDOW, TRYING TO understand what I had seen and silently congratulating myself on the fact that I still had clean underwear, I didn’t realize that Sister Clare Marie had entered the reception lounge. She circled around from behind me, coming between me and the window, as white and silent as an orbiting moon.
In her habit, with her soft pink face, button nose, and slight overbite, she needed only a pair of long furry ears to call herself a rabbit and attend a costume party.
“Child,” she said, “you look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Are you all right?”
Twitching her nose, as though she detected a scent that alarmed her, she said, “Child?”
I do not know why she calls me child. I have never heard her address anyone else that way, not even any of the children in the school.
Because Sister Clare Marie was a sweet gentle person, I did not want to alarm her, especially considering that the threat had passed, at least for the moment, and considering as well that, being a nun, she didn’t carry the hand grenades I would need before venturing again into the storm.
“It’s just the snow,” I said.
“The wind and cold and snow.
I’m a desert boy, ma’am. I’m not used to weather like this. It’s mean out there.”
“The weather isn’t mean,” she assured me with a smile. “The weather is glorious. The world is beautiful and glorious. Humanity can be mean, and turn away from what’s good. But weather is a gift.”
“All right,” I said.
Sensing that I hadn’t been convinced, she continued: “Blizzards dress the land in a clean habit, lightning and thunder make a music of celebration, wind blows away all that’s stale, even floods raise up everything green. For cold there’s hot. For dry there’s wet. For wind there’s calm. For night there’s day, which might not seem like weather to you, but it is. Embrace the weather, child, and you’ll understand the balance of the world.”
I am twenty-one, have known the misery of an indifferent father and a hostile mother, have had a part of my heart cut out by a sharp knife of loss, have killed men in self-defense and to spare the lives of innocents, and have left behind all the friends whom I cherished in Pico Mundo. I believe all this must show that I am a page on which the past has written clearly for anyone to read. Yet Sister Clare Marie sees some reason to call me — and only me — child, which sometimes I hope means that she possesses some understanding I do not have, but which most often I suspect means that she is as naive as she is sweet and that she does not know me at all.