The knowledge of reality is a secret knowledge; it is a kind of death.
—W. B. YEATS
Upon a vast, snow-covered plain in the Minnesota wilderness in
the late hours of the night, Duncan Bright and Brother Canice sit by
the woodstove in the monastery's kitchen with the wind howling
through the cracks in the stone and mortar, and the ancient oak and
pine joists that hold the slate roof above their heads moaning like an
old sleeping animal. The rest of the children will have long been
bathed and placed in their beds; there may be an odd creaking or
grumbling upon the ceiling wainscoting as they shift and shudder in
their halfsleep, but they will be the only two awake, thin slivers of red
and orange flame flickering from the woodstove's grate and moving
across both their faces in the dark. Brother Canice is a squat, rotund
little man with wispy orange-red sideburns that cover the entirety
of his jaws. The rest of his face is shaven so severely and stringently
that it shines like a pink, polished stone and Duncan is often surprised
he has not drawn blood. On a shelf lined with canned goods—Bristol's
peaches, Hammond baked beans, Labrador sardines— Brother
Canice's black Vulcanite transistor radio glows amber, humming
lightly with static and the odd pip or squeak, as if it were searching
out the void for some signal from the stars.
Tell me, Duncan asks him. Tell me again how I came to be here.
Brother Canice picks at something at the front of his teeth: the
sunflower seeds he always seems to be chewing. The flameglow is
orange on his yellowed caps, which replaced his front teeth a decade
ago; he likes to say that he lost them when he challenged the bishop
of St. Paul to a fight when they were both young prelates, but the
truth is less rebellious and less heroic and perhaps more beautiful.
After being bedridden with influenza for three weeks, he'd climbed
the tower's stairs to inspect the bells, to greet them, he says—he was
responsible for their tone and timbre and when dust and grime built
upon them they lost not only their luster but also their pitch. As he
leaned forward—his face widening and shimmering familiarly in the
ancient brass—a novitiate pulled on the heavily wound cottonstave
ropes from below and the bell's lip suddenly came up to greet Brother
Canice's face with a violent kiss, slicing into his gums and severing
his two front teeth at the root. He laughs as he spits seeds. Just like
that, he says, just like that. Two resin-stained teeth spiraling down
into the darkness of the bell case. Like bloody yellow pearls.
Tell me what you remember, Duncan, he says now.
I remember being born, Duncan says, and God speaking to me.
And what did he say to you?
I can't remember.
Shadows seem to find the narrow lines of Brother Canice's weathered
face, until only the regal cheekbones, the large, moist eyes, and
his mouth are visible. His breath smells slightly of wood, a damp teak,
as if he's been chewing on bark. Duncan finds it a comforting smell.
And you have no memory of anything else? Brother Canice asks.
Duncan shakes his head and Brother Canice grunts and pokes at
the grate, stirring the coals with the ornate, cast-iron poker.
This, then, shall be your story.
Duncan looks at him questioningly and although Brother Canice
cannot see the boy's expression in the dark, he shrugs. Brother
Canice runs his tongue along the gums of his front teeth and spits
sunflower seeds into the stove's grate with impressive accuracy. They
watch the seeds boil and hiss and pop and then dissolve, and in the hiss
of evaporation Brother Canice says: Until something better comes
along, Duncan. Only until something better comes along.
Wood is splintering in the woodstove but the room grows cold
and the light from the grate dims. Brother Canice shifts on his stool,
opens the grate, and a square of orange-colored light pushes back the
darkness. As he leans forward to poke the embers and lay another log
on the flames, his pale arms and face are turned crimson by firelight.
He closes the grate and the room is in darkness once more; slivers of
amber light from the grate flickering on his face and sending shadows
dancing around the room.
Brother Canice settles himself comfortably against the kitchen wall
and sighs. It was the winter of 1970 and there was a terrible storm, he
begins, and Duncan closes his eyes and listens to the wood crackling
as it burns and the children murmuring in their dreamsleep in the
coffin-dark above them. Brother Canice's ancient voice box seems
to wheeze in cadence with the wind beneath the window clasps and
the sound of the frames shuddering and cracking with shifting splays
of ice and the sense of morning still many hours away.
At dusk the sky above the farms and pastureland of Stockholdt,
Minnesota, roils as if it were a living thing, twisting and writhing
toward the northeastern horizon, where, briefly visible are small
towns, windows glinting nacre in the tallow light, and black ash,
yellow birch, and evergreen-lined slopes upon which rust-colored
buildings, tin mining shacks, logging camps, and pyramids of dead
timber bloom. Above the glacial Iron Range, the sky is a sheet of flat
gray steel and the mountains merely an outline stamped upon this
background: a picture taking shape, trembling momentarily, and then
becoming fixed in its bath of silver halide. Animals, sensing the
storm, are still. Not a thing moves. And then at the farthest edges of
the sky, a slight undulation begins like a wave far out at sea, and with
it comes a slow, rushing blackness as of night. A great wind rises up
from the north, and from the deep, leaded bellies of clouds, it begins
The annual Festival of Lights Holiday Train, a vintage 1928 Great
Northern Railway Empire Builder steam engine, leaves Holdbrundt
with the first strakes of snow drifting across the tracks, white billows
of steam venting from the engine's exchange as the hydraulic rods
and pistons stretch and contract and, in ever shortening revolutions,
turn the great wheels, and move them forward toward the wide
plains of St. Paul.
During the last leg of its four-hundred-mile journey across Minnesota,
the train tows two flatbeds upon which bands and other performers
have played, three boxcars filled with donated food, clothes, and
children's toys, and ten red-and-green turn-of-the century Pullman
railcars decorated with wreathes and lit by a hundred thousand miniature
Christmas lights. It is two days before Christmas, and meteorologists
in St. Paul and Duluth predict a few inches of festive snow
covering for those leaving school and work, with heavier snowfalls
in the distant mountain and valley ranges of Stockholdt and Thule.
Father Magnusson, who attends this pilgrimage every year from
the Capuchin monastery, the Blessed House of the Gray Brothers of
Mercy, in Thule, settles into a wide horse hair chair aboard the tenth
Pullman and watches the land stretching into darkness beyond the
lights of the train, the snow spiraling gently down in shimmering
electric, incandescent light. He imagines how this train must look to
children and adults waiting on various closed station platforms along
the Holiday Train's route: mere way-stations now, boarded-up grain
sheds for local villages and towns, gone the way of the train age itself
but for this one night, as the Holiday Train, burning coal from
its tender at a rate of one hundred pounds per mile, steams along the
old Great Northern Railroad, a hundred thousand miniature lights
aglow about its fifteen trailing cars like the bright curving tail of
some glorious Christmastime comet hurtling across the snow.
For a moment the sound of a tr