Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Cleric - Prologue

Christmas eve, 1954…
We gather at our family home on lake Onatah, the big 'O' to the locals, anticipating the laughter of a fat man with a beard, and the scratch of tiny hooves on the roof.

All lay in darkness as I walk down to the lake beside my uncle, who always smells of Old Spice, cigarettes and peppermint. He is a jolly man with gentle eyes, wise with age and faded with time, who usually communicates through a series of grunts, snorts, and laughter, sounds that, my Dad says, are akin to our prehistoric ancestors.

The lake is flat and black, moonlight annealed to its surface like tin foil, a burnished silver ribbon stretching from shore to shore, and the chill night air freezes the hairs in my nose and brings tears to my eyes.

Behind us light filters through the house windows and shadows dance along the walls as 
aunts and uncles, some by blood, others by lifelong acquaintance, gather around the fireplace. A piano plays, accompanied now by a fiddle and the soft melody of a Christmas carol, familial voices blended as if by a master vintner.

I shake with a chill and my uncle pulls me to him, wraps his arms around my shoulders. “Tell me what you see, boyo?”

I look up and his eyes are shut. “What do you mean?”

“Close your eyes and tell me what you see.”

I squeeze my lids together. “I can’t see anything?”

“No?” he whispers. “Listen then and tell me what you hear.”

“I hear the waves,” I tell him. “Lapping at the shore, and the family singing up in the house.”

“Turn those sounds into a memory and you’ll always remember this night.” He points out to the lake, to a wall of vapor rolling in from the opposite shore. “There are ghosts out there, boyo, dancing in the mist. Can you see them? Specters of those who’ve come before us; our kin. Got to come back and visit once in a while. It’s the way things work. Promise to always come back for a visit. They’ll be here waiting for you.”

I peer into the darkness, watch the mist skip across the surface of the lake. It swirls and forms into tendrils as if directed by some otherworldly force.

My uncle watches and says, “Don’t be afraid, memories are buried treasure, possessed of a power all their own. They’ll hammer at you if you let them, but you’ll find yourself half a man without them.”

A series of distant mortar thumps and the sky explodes; class-A fireworks, a tradition with lake folk, complete with reports, flashes and shimmers of every size, shape and imaginable color.

It is getting colder and the snow crunches under boot as we turn and start back toward the house, toward the comforting murmur of family and friends.

Warmed by a candle of wonder, carefully tended by the child inside my uncle, I go to bed and lay in darkness. Just before I slip into the long blank of sleep I think, was it a dream?

Years later, I will return to the lake, to the shore, and wonder? Was I crazy? How about my uncle? No, I will have learned by then that crazy is simply a moniker we put on someone who still has the magic in them after they’re no longer a child.


Twelve years pass in a blink and Kelsey and I stand waist-deep in the sun-warmed crystalline water of the lake; the early evening air cooling as the sun drops toward the horizon.

I hold her close, her youthful, summer-tanned body firm and warm. Still, she shivers in my arms. “Will you come to the bus station tomorrow,” I say?

She hesitates, then, “I don’t know if I can take it, Jake.” Her shoulders quiver. “This damn war, first it’s my brother, then Jack and Bill, your best friends, and now you. Off to Ft. Benning and then…” Her voice trails off and I feel tears fall from her face onto my chest. “Please, just hold me tight. I don’t want to talk about you leaving.”

Later, we build a fire on the shoreline, open a bottle of wine and curl up inside a large, cotton blanket. Soon after, we are naked and her body moves in sync with mine as we make love in the warm sand at the edge of the lake, with only the stars and moon as witness. A sexual union that, I believe, has included the bonding of our souls. 

I wake early the next morning, after a discomfited night of sleep, not knowing what the day will bring. I shower and pack my shaving kit along with one extra pair of civvies. The Army will supply me the balance of my wardrobe for the next eighteen weeks.

I look in the mirror, at the beginnings of circles under my eyes and at the lone wrinkle that creases my forehead. Nothing I can do about that, time alone will weave a fabric of them across my face. Then I run a brush through my hair and manage a smile. One of Fort Jackson’s base barbers, who the trainees call ‘the great equalizers’, will make sure I have no need for a brush or a comb for the next few months.

An hour later I sit alone in the back seat of my dad’s ‘57 Chevy as we weave our way toward the Greyhound bus station.

Dad eyes me in the rearview mirror. “She may already be there son. Perhaps her folks drove her.”

I wait as bus after bus pulls away, wait and watch, hoping that she will show, though in my heart I know she won’t. 

Finally, the driver calls for boarding. I hug my mom who, with tears streaming down her face, can’t seem to find her voice. My dad, ever the stoic, a man of few words, dabs at his left eye, then throws his arms around my shoulders and whispers, “I love you son, take care, now.”

I sit in the back of the bus and wave to my folks. 

As the bus rolls away, I resist looking back, knowing that I am leaving behind all those that I love, that my Kelsey is not there waving to me, and that the last long, lazy days of summer sun, fun and desire are over. A thought comes out of nowhere, searing, an arrow through my heavy heart: I will never be nineteen years old in August again.
The steady hum of wheels on the pavement seeps into my bones and I sit back and close my eyes.

Just before I drift off, I recall my last conversation with Kelsey; "What are we going to do, Jake?"

“You are going to go off the college and I'm going to fulfill my duty. When you graduate and I get back we will pick back up and begin our life together.”

Which, of course, won't happen. Life will intervene and it will take twenty years for me to finally return, this time as an emotionally and spiritually bruised man of the cloth. A man of faith with a deeper, darker calling. One that will not get me within shouting distance of St. Peter when my time on earth is over.

Then, I think of a cold winter’s night at the lake, all those years ago, and of my uncle, gone now, though the memory of him lingers still.

And, then, I think of ghosts.

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