Brother Odd

Page 17



“No, I do not agree. The third Saturday in May is the Shelby County Blue River Dulcimer Festival. If you think local and national dulcimer players giving concerts and workshops is exciting, instead of merely charming, then you are an even more peculiar young man than I have heretofore thought.”


I shut up for a while and finished my sandwich.


As I was licking my fingers, Rodion Romanovich said, “You do know what a dulcimer is, do you not, Mr. Thomas?”


“A dulcimer,” I said, “is a trapezoidal zither with metal strings that are struck with light hammers.”


He seemed amused, in spite of his dour expression. “I will wager the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”


I said nothing, just licked the rest of my fingers.


“Mr. Thomas, did you know that in an experiment with a human observer, subatomic particles behave differently from the way they behave when the experiment is unobserved while in progress and the results are examined, instead, only after the fact?”


“Sure. Everybody knows that.”


He raised one bushy eyebrow. “Everybody, you say. Well, then you realize what this signifies.”


I said, “At least on a subatomic level, human will can in part shape reality.”


Romanovich gave me a look that I would have liked to capture in a snapshot.


I said, “But what does any of this have to do with cake?”


“Quantum theory tells us, Mr. Thomas, that every point in the universe is intimately connected to every other point, regardless of apparent distance. In some mysterious way, any point on a planet in a distant galaxy is as close to me as you are.”


“No offense, but I don’t really feel that close to you, sir.”


“This means that information or objects, or even people, should be able to move instantly between here and New York City, or indeed between here and that planet in another galaxy.”


“What about between here and Indianapolis?”


“That, too.”


“Wow.”


“We just do not yet understand the quantum structure of reality sufficiently to achieve such miracles.”


“Most of us can’t figure how to program a video recorder, so we probably have a long way to go on this here-to-another-galaxy thing.”


He finished frosting the second cake. “Quantum theory gives us reason to believe that on a deep structural level, every point in the universe is in some ineffable way the same point. You have a smear of mayonnaise at the corner of your mouth.”


I found it with a finger, licked the finger. “Thank you, sir.”


“The interconnectedness of every point in the universe is so complete that if an enormous flock of birds bursts into flight from a marsh in Spain, the disturbance of the air caused by their wings will contribute to weather changes in Los Angeles. And, yes, Mr. Thomas, in Indianapolis, as well.”


With a sigh, I said, “I still can’t figure out what this has to do with cake.”


“Nor can I,” said Romanovich. “It has to do not with cake but with you and me.”


I puzzled over that statement. When I met his utterly unreadable eyes, I felt as if they were taking me apart on a subatomic level.


Concerned that something was smeared at the other corner of my mouth, I wiped with a finger, found neither mayonnaise nor mustard.


“Well,” I said, “I’m stumped again.”


“Did God bring you here, Mr. Thomas?”


I shrugged. “He didn’t stop me from coming.”


“I believe God brought me here,” Romanovich said. “Whether God brought you here or not is of profound interest to me.”


“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Satan who brought me here,” I assured him. “The guy who drove me was an old friend, and he doesn’t have horns.”


I got off the stool, reached past the cake pans, and picked up the book that he had taken from the library.


“This isn’t about poisons and famous poisoners,” I said.


The true title of the book did not reassure me — The Blade of the Assassin: The Role of Daggers, Dirks, and Stilettos in the Deaths of Kings and Clergymen.


“I have a wide-ranging interest in history,” said Romanovich.


The color of the binding cloth appeared to be identical to that of the book that he had been holding in the library. I had no doubt this was the same volume.


“Would you like a piece of cake?” he asked.


Putting the book down, I said, “Maybe later.”


“There may not be any left later. Everyone loves my orange-and-almond cake.”


“I get hives from almonds,” I claimed, and reminded myself to report this whopper to Sister Angela, to prove that, in spite of what she believed, I could be as despicable a liar as the next guy.


I carried my empty glass and bare plate to the main sink and began to rinse them.


Sister Regina Marie appeared as if from an Arabian lamp. “I’ll wash them, Oddie.”


As she attacked the dish with a soapy sponge, I said, “So Mr. Romanovich has baked quite a lot of sheet cakes for the lunch dessert.”


“For dinner,” she said. “They smell so good that I’m afraid they’re decadent.”


“He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would enjoy a culinary pastime.”


“Perhaps he doesn’t strike you that way,” she agreed, “but he loves to bake. And he’s very talented.”


“You mean you’ve eaten his desserts before?”


“Many times. You have, too.”


“I don’t believe so.”


“The lemon-syrup cake with coconut icing last week.


That was by Mr. Romanovich. And the week before, the polenta cake with almonds and pistachios.”


I said, “Oh.”


“And surely you remember the banana-and-lime cake with the icing made from lime-juice reduction.”


I nodded. “Surely. Yes, I remember. Delicious.”


A sudden great tolling of bells shook through the old abbey, as though Rodion Romanovich had arranged for this clangorous performance to mock me for being so gullible.


The bells were rung for a variety of services in the new abbey, but seldom here, and never at this hour.


Frowning, Sister Regina Marie looked up at the ceiling, and then in the direction of the convent church and bell tower. “Oh, dear. Do you think Brother Constantine is back?”


Brother Constantine, the dead monk, the infamous suicide who lingers stubbornly in this world.


“Excuse me, Sister,” I said, and I hurried out of the kitchen, digging in a pocket of my jeans for my universal key.


CHAPTER 24


AFTER THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE NEW ABBEY, the church in the former abbey had not been deconsecrated. Twice every day, a priest came downhill to say Mass; half the sisters attended the first service, half the second.


The late Brother Constantine almost exclusively haunted the new abbey and the new church, though he twice made memorable appearances, sans bells, at the school. He had hanged himself in the new bell tower, and when previously his restless spirit had raised a tolling, the clamor had been in that same structure.


Heeding my warning to Sister Angela, I did not go out into the storm, but followed a ground-floor hallway into the former novitiate wing, and entered the sacristy by the back door.


As loud as the bells had seemed before, they were twice that loud when I stepped out of the sacristy into the church. The vaulted ceiling reverberated not with a celebratory tintinnabulation, not with a glory-of-Christmas sound, not with the joyful ringing that follows a wedding. This was an angry tumult of bronze clappers, a pandemoniacal bong-and-clang.


By the murky stormlight that penetrated the stained-glass windows, I stepped down through the choir stalls. I passed through the sanctuary gate and hurried along the center aisle of the nave, sliding a little in my stocking feet.


My haste did not mean that I looked forward with pleasure to another encounter with the spirit of Brother Constantine. He is about as much fun as strep throat.


Because this noisy manifestation was occurring here instead of in the tower where he had killed himself, it might be in some way related to the violence that was bearing down on the children of St. Bart’s School. I had learned virtually nothing about that impending event thus far, and I hoped that Brother Constantine would have a clue or two for me.


In the narthex, I flicked a light switch, turned right, and came to the bell-tower door, which was kept locked out of concern that one of the more physically able children might slip out of supervision and wander this far. Were a child to get to the top of the tower, he would be at risk of falling out of the belfry or down the stairs.


As I turned my key in the lock, I warned myself that I was as susceptible to a fatal plunge as was a wandering child. I didn’t mind dying — and being reunited with Stormy, whether in Heaven or in the unknown great adventure she calls “service” — but not until the threat to the children had been identified and met.


If I failed this time, if some were spared but others died, as at the mall during the shooting spree, I would have no place to flee that could promise more solitude and peace than a mountain monastery. And you already know what a crock that promise turned out to be.


The spiral staircase in the tower was not heated. The rubberized treads felt cold under my stocking feet, but they were not slippery.


Here the bedlam of bells caused the walls to resonate like a drum membrane responding to peals of thunder. As I climbed, I slid my hand along the curved wall, and the plaster hummed under my palm.


By the time I reached the top of the stairs, my teeth discretely vibrated like thirty-two tuning forks. The hairs in my nose tickled, and my ears ached. I could feel the boom of the bells in my bones.


This was an auditory experience for which every thrashed-out heavy-metal rhapsodist had been searching all his life: tuned-bronze walls of sound crashing down in deafening avalanches.


I stepped into the belfry, where the air was freezing.


Before me was not a three-bell carillon like the one at the new abbey. This tower was wider, the belfry more spacious than the one in the building upslope. In earlier decades, the monks clearly had taken more exuberant pleasure in their tolling, for they had constructed a two-level, five-bell carillon, and the bells were enormous, as well.


No ropes or crankwheels were required to swing these bronze behemoths. Brother Constantine rode them as if he were a rodeo cowboy leaping from one back to another among a herd of bucking bulls.


His restless spirit, energized by frustration and fury, had become a raging poltergeist. An immaterial entity, he had no weight or leverage with which to move the heavy bells, but from him throbbed concentric waves of power as invisible to other people as was the dead monk himself, though visible to me.


As these pulses washed through the belfry, the suspended bronze forms swung wildly. The immense clappers hammered out a more violent knelling than their makers had intended or imagined possible.


I could not feel those waves of power as they washed over me. A poltergeist cannot harm a living person either by touch or directly by his emanations.


If one of the bells broke loose of its mountings and fell on me, however, I nonetheless would be squashed.


Brother Constantine had been gentle in life, so he could not have become evil in death. If he unintentionally harmed me, he would be cast into a deeper despair than the one he currently endured.


In spite of his deeply felt remorse, I would remain squashed.


Back and forth along the carillon, up and down and up the two levels, the dead monk capered. Although he didn’t appear demonic, I do not feel that I am being unfair to him by using the word demented.


Any lingering spirit is irrational, having lost his way in the vertical of sacred order. A poltergeist is irrational and pissed.


Warily, I moved along the walkway that encircled the bells. They swung in wider arcs than usual, intruding on the pathway and forcing me to remain near the perimeter of the space.


Columns stood on the waist-high outer wall, supporting the overhanging roof. Between the columns, on a clear day, were views of the new abbey, of the rising and descending slopes of the Sierra, of a pristine vastness of forest.


The blizzard screened from sight the new abbey and the forest. I could see only the slate roofs and the cobblestone courtyards of the old abbey immediately below.


The storm shrieked as before, but it could not be heard above the booming bells. Wind-harried twists of snow chased one another through the belfry, and out again.


As I slowly circled him, Brother Constantine was aware that I had arrived. Like a robed and hooded goblin, he leaped from bell to bell, his attention always on me.


His eyes bulged grotesquely, not as they had in life, but as the strangling noose had caused them to bulge when his neck had snapped and his trachea had collapsed.


I stopped with my back turned to one of the columns and spread my arms wide, both palms turned up, as if to ask, What’s the point of this, Brother? How does this benefit you?


Although he knew what I meant, he did not want to contemplate the ultimate ineffectiveness of his rage. He looked away from me and flung himself more frenetically through the bells.


I shoved my hands in my pockets and yawned. I assumed a bored expression. When he looked at me again, I yawned exaggeratedly and shook my head as an actor does when playing to the back rows, as though sadly expressing my disappointment in him.


Here was proof that even in its most desperate hours, when the bones are gnawed by a sharp-toothed chill and the nerves fray in fear of what the next circuit of the clock may bring, life retains a comic quality. The clangor had reduced me to a mime.


This swelling of bells proved to be Brother Constantine’s final flare of rage. The concentric waves of power stopped radiating from him, and at once the bells swung less violently, their arcs rapidly diminishing.


Although my socks were thick and made for winter sports, an icy cold pressed through them from the stone floor. My teeth began to chatter as I strove to continue feigning boredom.


Soon the clappers bumped gently against the bronze, producing soft, clear, mellow notes that were the essential theme music for a melancholy mood.


The voice of the wind did not return in a howling rush because my brutalized ears were still thrumming with the memory of the recent cacophony.


Like one of those masters of martial mayhem in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who could leap gracefully to rooftops and then descend in an aerial ballet, Brother Constantine glided down from the bells and landed near me on the belfry deck.


He no longer chose to be goggle-eyed. His face was as it had been before the cinching noose, though perhaps he had never looked this mournful in life.


As I was about to speak to him, I became aware of movement on the farther side of the belfry, a dark presence glimpsed between the curves of silenced bronze, silhouetted against the stifled light of the snow-choked day.