Brother Constantine followed my gaze and seemed to identify the new arrival from what little could be seen. Although nothing in this world could harm him anymore, the dead monk shrank back as though in dread.
I had moved away from the head of the stairs, and as the figure circled the bells, it came between me and that sole exit from the belfry.
As my temporary deafness faded and as the cry of the wind rose like a chorus of angry voices, the figure emerged from behind the screening bells. Here was the black-habited monk whom I had seen in the open door to the stairwell, as I’d turned away from Sister Miriam at the nurses’ station, little more than twenty minutes ago.
I was closer to him now than I had been then, but I could still see only blackness inside his hood, not the merest suggestion of a face. The wind billowed his tunic but revealed no feet, and at the ends of his sleeves, there were no hands to be seen.
Afforded more than a glimpse of him this time, I realized that his tunic was longer than those the brothers wore, that it trailed on the floor. The fabric was not as common as that from which the monks’ habits were fashioned; it had the luster of silk.
He wore a necklace of human teeth strung like pearls, with three fingers, just bleached bones, pendant at the center.
Instead of a cloth cincture at the waist, to gather in the tunic and the scapular, he wore a woven cord of what appeared to be clean, shiny human hair.
He drifted toward me. Although I intended to stand my ground, I stepped back from him as he approached, as reluctant to make contact as was my dead companion, Brother Constantine.
HAD NOT THE SOLES OF MY FEET BEEN STUNG by cold as sharp as needles, had not a burning kind of numbness begun to cramp my toes, I might have thought that I had never awakened to find the red light and the blue light of sheriffs-department vehicles twinkling in the frosted windows of my guesthouse bedroom, that I was still asleep and dreaming.
The great pendular lobes of bronze, to which fevered Freud would have attributed the sleaziest symbolic meaning, and the groin-vaulted ceiling of the belfry, which was also fraught with meaning not solely because of its name but also because of its curves and shadows, made the perfect landscape for a dream, surrounded by the virginal white of the frigid storm.
This minimalist figure of Death, robed and hooded, neither ripe with rot nor squirming with maggots as he would be in comic books and in cheesy slice-and-dice movies, but as clean as a dark polar wind, was as real as the Reaper in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. At the same time, he had the qualities of a threatening phantom in a nightmare, amorphous and unknowable, most sharply seen from the corner of the eye.
Death raised his right arm, and from the sleeve appeared a long pale hand, not skeletal but fully fleshed. Although a void remained within the hood, the hand reached toward me, and the finger pointed.
Now I was reminded of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Here was the last of the three spirits to visit the miserly master of the counting house, the ominous silent spirit that Scrooge named the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The ghost had been what Scrooge called it but also something worse, because wherever else the future leads, it leads ultimately to death, the end that is present in my beginning and in yours.
From Death’s left sleeve, another pale hand appeared, and this one held a rope, the end of which had been fashioned into a noose. The spirit — or whatever it might be — traded the noose from his left hand to his right, and raveled out an unlikely length of rope from within his tunic.
When he withdrew the loose end of the rope from his sleeve, he tossed it over the rocking bar that, when turned by a crankwheel at the bottom of the tower, would set the five-bell carillon to ringing. He fashioned a gallows knot with such ease that it seemed not like the skill of a seasoned executioner but like a good magician’s sleight of hand.
All this had the feel of kabuki, that Japanese form of highly stylized theater. The surreal sets, the elaborate costumes, the bold masks, the wigs, the extravagant emotions, and the broad melodramatic gestures of the actors should make Japanese theater as laughable as America’s brand of professional wrestling. Yet by some mysterious effect, to the knowledgeable audience, kabuki becomes as real as a razor drawn across a thumb.
In the silence of the bells, with the storm seeming to roar its approval of his performance, Death pointed at me, and I knew that he intended the noose for my neck.
Spirits cannot harm the living. This is our world, not theirs.
Death is not actually a figure that stalks the world in costume, collecting souls.
Both of those things were true, which meant that this menacing Reaper could not do me any harm.
Because my imagination is as rich as my bank account is empty, I could nevertheless imagine the coarse fibers of the rope against my throat, my Adam’s apple cinched to sauce.
Taking courage from the fact that he was already dead, Brother Constantine stepped forward, as if to draw Death’s attention and give me a chance to make a break for the stairs.
The monk leaped to the bells again, but he no longer could summon the rage required to produce psychokinetic phenomena. He appeared instead to be overcome by fear for me. He wrung his hands, and his mouth wrenched wide in a silent scream.
My confidence that no spirit could harm me was shaken by Brother Constantine’s conviction that I was toast.
Although the Reaper was a simpler figure than the kaleidoscope of bones that had stalked me through the storm, I sensed that they were alike in that they were theatrical, mannered, self-conscious in a way that the lingering dead never are. Even a poltergeist at the summit of his wrath does not design his rampage for maximum effect on the living, has no intention of spooking anyone, but wants only to work off his frustration, his self-loathing, his rage at being stuck in a kind of purgatory between two worlds.
The dazzling transformations of the bone beast at the window had smacked of vanity: Behold the wonder of me, stand in awe, and tremble. Likewise, the Reaper moved as might a conceited dancer on a stage, ostentatious, in expectation of applause.
Vanity is strictly a human weakness. No animal is capable of vanity. People sometimes say cats are vain, but cats are haughty. They are confident of their superiority and do not crave admiration, as do vain men and women.
The lingering dead, though they might have been vain in life, have been stripped of vanity by the discovery of their mortality.
Now this Reaper made a mocking come-to-me gesture, as if I should be so intimidated by his fearsome appearance and his grandeur that I would put the noose around my neck and spare him the struggle to snare me.
The recognition that those two apparitions shared an all-too-human vanity, a conceit unseen in all that is truly otherworldly, was significant. But I didn’t know why.
In response to his come-to-me gesture, I stepped back from him, and he flew at me with sudden ferocity.
Before I could raise an arm to block him, he got his right hand around my throat and, exhibiting inhuman strength, lifted me off the floor with one hand.
The Reaper’s arm was so unnaturally long that I couldn’t strike at him or claw at the perfect blackness that pooled within his hood. I was reduced to tearing at the hand that gripped me, trying to pry back his fingers.
Although his hand looked like flesh, flexed like flesh, I could not claw blood from it. My fingernails scraping across his pale skin produced the sound they would have raised from a slate chalkboard.
He slammed me against a column, and the back of my head rapped the stone. For a moment, the blizzard seemed to find its way inside my skull, and a whirl of white behind my eyes almost spun me away into an eternal winter.
When I kicked and kicked, my feet landed without effect in soft billows of black tunic, and his body, if one existed under those silken folds, seemed to have no more solidity than quicksand or than the sucking tar into which Jurassic behemoths had blundered to their destruction.
I gasped for breath and found it. He was holding me, not choking me, perhaps to ensure that, when I was discovered and hauled back into the belfry, the only marks on my throat and under my chin would be those left by the lethal snap of the rope.
As he pulled me away from the column, his left hand rose and tossed the noose, which floated toward me like a ring of dark smoke. I twisted my head away. The rope fell across my face, and back into his hand.
The moment he had succeeded in slipping the noose around my neck and had drawn it tight, he would pitch me out of the belfry, and I would ring the bells to announce my death.
I stopped ripping at his hand, which had me firmly yoked, and grabbed the loop of rope as he tried once more to fit me with that crude necktie.
Struggling to foil the noose, staring down into the emptiness of his hood, I heard myself croak, “I know you, don’t I?”
That question, born of intuition, seemed to work magic, as if it were an incantation. Something began to form in the void where a face should have been.
He faltered in the struggle for the noose.
Encouraged, I said more certainly, “I know you.”
Within the hood, the basic contours of a face began to take shape, like molten black plastic conforming to a die.
The countenance lacked sufficient detail to spark recognition, glistened darkly as the dim reflection of a face might glimmer and ripple in a night pond where no moonlight brightens the black water.
“Mother of God, I know you,” I said, though intuition had still not given me a name.
My third insistence conjured greater dimension in the glossy black face before me, almost as though my words had spawned in him a guilt and an irresistible compulsion to confess his identity.
The Reaper turned his head from me. He threw me aside, and then tossed away the hangman’s rope, which raveled down upon me as I collapsed onto the belfry deck.
In a silken black swirl, he sprang onto the parapet between two columns, hesitated there, and then flung himself into the snowstorm.
I thrust up from the floor even as he jumped, and I leaned over the parapet.
His tunic spread like wings, and he sailed down from the tower, landed with balletic grace upon the church roof, and at once flung himself toward the lower roof of the abbey.
Although he seemed to me to have been something other than a spirit, less supernatural than unnatural, he dematerialized as fully as any ghost might, though in a manner that I had never seen before.
In flight, he seemed to come apart like a clay disk blasted by a skeet-shooter’s shotgun. A million flakes of snow and a million fragments of the Reaper laced out into a black-and-white symmetrical pattern, a kaleidoscopic image in midair, which the wind respected only for an instant and then dissolved.
IN THE GROUND-FLOOR RECEPTION LOUNGE, I SAT on the edge of a sofa to pull on my ski boots, which had dried.
My feet were still stiff with cold. I would have liked to slouch deep in an armchair, put my feet on a stool, warm myself with a lap robe, read a good novel, nibble cookies, and be served cup after cup of hot cocoa by my fairy godmother.
If I had a fairy godmother, she would resemble Angela Lansbury, the actress in Murder, She Wrote. She would love me unconditionally, would bring me anything my heart desired, and would tuck me into bed each night and put me to sleep with a kiss on the forehead, because she would have been through a training program at Disneyland and would have sworn the godmother’s oath while in the presence of Walt Disney’s cryogenically preserved corpse.
I stood up in my boots and flexed my half-numb toes.
Beast of bones or no beast of bones, I would have to go outside again into the blizzard, not immediately, but soon.
Whatever forces were at work at St. Bartholomew’s, I had never encountered anything like them, had never seen such apparitions, and didn’t have much confidence that I would understand their intentions in time to prevent disaster. If I should fail to identify the threat before it was upon us, I needed brave hearts and strong hands to help me protect the children, and I knew where to find them.
Graceful, stately, her footsteps hushed by her flowing white habit, Sister Angela arrived as if she were the avatar of a snow goddess who had stepped down from a celestial palace to assess the effectiveness of the storm spell that she had cast upon the Sierra.
“Sister Clare Marie says you need to speak with me, Oddie.”
Brother Constantine had accompanied me from the bell tower and now joined us. The mother superior, of course, could not see him.
“George Washington was famous for his bad false teeth,” I said, “but I don’t know anything about the dental situations of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.”
“Nor do I,” she said. “And before you ask, it has nothing to do with their hairstyles, either.”
“Brother Constantine did not commit suicide,” I told her. “He was murdered.”
Her eyes widened. “I’ve never heard such glorious news followed by such terrible news in the same sentence.”
“He lingers not because he fears his judgment in the next world but because he despairs for his brothers at the abbey.”
Surveying the reception lounge, she said, “Is he here with us now?”
“Right beside me.”
I indicated his position.
“Dear Brother Constantine.” Her voice broke with sentiment. “We’ve prayed every day for you, and have missed you every day.”
Tears shone in the spirit’s eyes.
I said, “He was reluctant to move on from this world while his brothers believed that he’d killed himself.”
“Of course. He’s been worried that his suicide might cause them to doubt their own commitment to a life in faith.”
“Yes. But also I think he worried because they were unaware that a murderer had come among them.”
Sister Angela is a quick study, with a steel-trap mind, but her decades of gentle service in the peaceful environment of one convent or another have not stropped her street smarts to a sharp edge.
“But surely you mean some outsider wandered here one night, like those the news is full of, and Brother Constantine had the misfortune to cross his path.”
“If that’s the case, then the guy came back for Brother Timothy, and just now in the tower here, he tried to murder me.”
Alarmed, she put one hand on my arm. “Oddie, you’re all right?”
“I’m not dead yet,” I said, “but there’s still the cake after dinner.”
“Sorry. I’m just being me.”
“Who tried to kill you?”
I said only, “I didn’t see his face. He … wore a mask. And I’m convinced he’s someone I know, not an outsider.”
She looked at where she knew the dead monk to be. “Can’t Brother Constantine identify him?”