Deus Absconditus, a short story by Mary Costello
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 6: By the award-winning author of Academy Street, The China Factory and The River Capture
Illustration: Brendon Deacy
It is Martin’s first time on the Eurostar. He happens to be in London and is taking this opportunity to meet his son, John, who is over from the US for a science conference in Paris. The train sweeps past the back gardens and industrial estates of Greater London. Out in the country a light rain begins to fall. He opens his book but cannot concentrate. A bluebottle lands on the bright green sleeve of a young man sitting diagonally across from him. He studies the bluebottle, the casual landings and take-offs. The man has a pale impassive face and mild blue eyes. He is not looking at anyone or anything, but far off inside himself. Then, slowly, his eyes begin to fill with tears. When he blinks they fall on his face, his hands. Martin looks away. They are speeding through Kent, over the chalky earth. He is waiting for the plunge underground. He remembers the giant drilling machines that bored under the seafloor from either side years ago, and met in the middle. He looks back at the young man and he is drawn in, confounded. Who did this to you? he thinks.
He grows anxious, waiting for the plunge. He has a fear of enclosed spaces, suffocation. A polo-neck jumper pulled over his head as a child; the slide into an MRI scanner last year; the Ailwee Caves, years ago, when Mona and the boys scrambled ahead of him into the long low passageways. He feels a shift, a drop in speed, and there follows a gradual descent. An eerie silence falls on the carriage. Then the lights come on. From the tunnel walls there is no way of knowing where land ends and sea begins. He wonders what psychic perturbations are induced in man as he descends into these subterranean depths, the fish above his head, him so long ashore. Mona would dismiss such thoughts with a click of her tongue. It would be better if you said your prayers, she would say. She is in Spain for a week with members of Galway Bridge Club. Since retirement they measure out their time in holidays and weekend breaks, often taken separately. He struggles to come up with destinations of his own. This week he visited his sister in London. Travel heightens the senses, makes small, easily forgotten details more acute, significant, imperishable. Travel makes of home a wound that accompanies him everywhere.
He gets up and goes to the toilet. He cannot pee. The undercarriage rattles and clangs and he is thrown against the side of the tiny compartment. He steadies himself, but still his urethra will not relax and release the contents of his bladder.
On his way back to his seat the tilt of a woman’s face reminds him of Mona and he feels a little leap of hope. And then, as he takes his seat, they are suddenly in daylight again, passing vast fields, wind farms, villages with red roofs and church spires, being swept rapidly eastwards, as if everything lies there. He turns his head by degrees. In the distance, a line of poplars. The words Balm of Gilead spring to mind. It is a variety of poplar. The nursing home in Athlone where his mother died was called Balm of Gilead. The name comes from the Old Testament. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?
At Gare du Nord he follows the signs for the RER B. He has planned everything meticulously, left nothing to chance. On the platform he is buoyed up – he likes this feeling of being a lone traveller. He will sit at an outdoor café and read his novel. He might smoke a cigarette. He would like to get away from the man he is at home.
He gets off at Luxembourg and climbs into the sunny street and walks to his hotel on rue Pascal. In a matter of hours he will see his son. He will, again, be with his own kin, his own blood. For a few moments he is extraordinarily happy.
Later, with his map, he makes his way along the streets towards the Panthéon. He passes a homeless man asleep on a grille, warm air wafting up from the Métro. He remembers the rickety little trains from previous visits, tumbling up hill and down dale through the underground, careering dangerously around bends, screeching into stations. He walks with his head down, counting his footsteps, abstractedly keeping their beat until he enters, in his mind’s eye, the labyrinthine tunnels below, the fragile honeycomb foundations of the city, and, caught between worlds, he experiences a brief vertiginous wobble, a misstep, so that he has to stop, put a hand on a wall, find his bearings again.
He passes a church, fine stone buildings. He finds the square and the café that Hemingway frequented, and sits outside and orders lunch. He looks around. Paris is vain, he thinks, too beautiful, too pleased with itself. He watches people crossing the cobbles and thinks of home, the sea close by, the small fields and tender landscape surrounding the city. He checks his watch and remembers John, just a few streets away now, at the Sorbonne. He would like to see more of his first-born son. The trip to London was mostly a pretext to see John.
Afterwards, he returns along the same streets, past the Panthéon and rue Soufflot. He enters the Luxembourg Gardens. The place is teeming with people, walking in the shade of trees, sitting in chairs by the fountain. He makes his way along the central axis and finds a seat beside a large wooden planter in which a tree grows. At the fountain children are pushing little sailboats out onto the water with sticks. He used to make the boys swim all year round at Salthill. He made them dive from the diving board into the freezing water, to toughen them up. He turns his head. A wood pigeon has landed on the rim of the planter beside him. In the sun its plumage is beautiful, luminous. As he watches, it bows its head and raises its tail and defecates into the planter. He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed. He thinks of this private act and the multitude of private acts unfolding in the tumult around him. Each act, each object and being, in its own destiny, the pigeon in his, too. The corpus mysticum that contains everything, every breath ever breathed, every deed ever done.
And then, a little commotion at the fountain: a bright-red, remote-controlled motorboat has zoomed out onto the water and is whizzing around, all swagger and flash, among the sailboats. In the flurry, a sail tilts and the motorboat becomes entangled in its fabric, and is immobilised. It revs and splutters, but it is crippled and for several minutes is towed along by the sailboat, both of them tacking back and forth to the whim of the breeze, limping home. Martin smiles and turns away, but within seconds the motorboat is roaring back out on the water, teasing, taunting, looking for trouble.
Before he leaves, he wanders into the Orangerie where a photographic exhibition is running. La Grande Guerre. Some photographs are of the trenches but most are of Paris. A dead horse lies in the middle of rue San Antoine as people go about their business. The tail is limp in the dust, the bowels evacuated, the vulva exposed. He stands before her, shamed. Further along, a wedding, women in munitions factories, a dead soldier beside a crater. The ruins of Ypres: silent souls among the asphodels.
At 6.30 John comes to his hotel and they embrace awkwardly in the foyer. This gesture the only exterior equivalent of his heart’s motion that is permitted. John is tanned, beginning to grey at the temples. They walk towards the river. Martin asks after Rachel and the children, John after his mother and brothers. They turn left and wander along Boulevard St. Germaine. The traffic is louder here so they cannot easily talk. Occasionally, their arms touch. They find a small bistro off the boulevard and take a table inside, grateful for the waiter’s approach, and for the wine. John tells him there was an electrical storm over Paris last night. Very dramatic, he says - forks of lightning, the full acoustics of thunder, the sky lit up in apocalyptic fashion.
His accent, after twenty years away, is more American, making Martin feel self-conscious, embarrassed almost, about his own. ‘How’s the conference going?’ he asks.
‘It’s going well,’ John says. ‘It ends tomorrow.’ He will return to Boston on an evening flight. He did not present a paper this year. He is in the process of changing direction, research-wise, he says, but does not elaborate.
Sometimes Martin googles John. The articles he comes upon by his son are obscure, and, it seems to him, growing more so all the time. John is a biochemist and, in the early years of his career, Martin did his best to acquaint himself with the various branches and strands and developments in biochemistry, and with polymerisation, which was John’s field then. He had been hopeful. He had read a book, Heraclitean Fire, the memoirs of a scientist. He had put his hand on it in a bookshop, thinking it was on Gerard Manley Hopkins. But it was the writings of a biochemist, and he had bought it, struck by the synchronicity of coming on such a book just as John was starting his post-doctorate research at MIT. There are things Martin still remembers from that book, things that surprised and uplifted him - Latin words, insights, language that was poetic. The scientist had a melancholy nature. He had a deep pity for little words when they were mistreated.
The waiter takes their order and they settle in. John pours the wine. A man at the next table raises his glass to his lips. He reminds Martin of a friend, an ex-colleague. All day long he has been fastening on faces, superimposing the features of loved ones or acquaintances onto strangers, creating a multiplicity of phantoms in an attempt - he now thinks - to keep homesickness at bay.
‘How was the train ride over?’ John asks.
‘Good,’ Martin says. ‘Better than I expected.’ He is about to say that he kept imagining the tunnel roof collapsing and the sea bursting in. But he holds back. He feels a weight gathering, the whole evening pressing down on him. He remembers the crying man on the train. Why had he assumed his suffering had been inflicted by others? He might have done something himself, some crime.
‘And you saw Ellen in London – how is she?’ John asks.
‘She’s good. You know Ellen – ever the revolutionary, the campaigner. Still the occasional thorn in her superior’s side, I suspect.’
Ellen, his sister, is a nun. Once, he had pitied her for all of life she had forsaken in the taking of her vows. In their youth he had argued intensely with her. But the older he gets, the more he seeks her out. Her presence, and their shared past, evoke in him feelings of peace and ease and reverie. ‘She’s working on another book,’ he says.
‘Good for her! What’s this one on?’
‘Women. Peace women – the Israeli women who keep vigil at the border crossings; the Quaker, Prudence Crandall. Another woman – whose name I’ve forgotten - who was the first U.S. Congresswoman. Apparently she voted against going to war twice - first in 1917, and again in 1941 - she was the only one to vote against attacking Japan.’
‘Wow… Ellen is amazing, at her age.’ He smiles kindly. ‘Auntie Nun.’
The boys gave her this name when they were small. She brought them books, raised the bar, exerted an influence. She had done the same for him when they were young. He had thought then he was meant for something unusual. But all he had been was a husband, a father, a provincial schools’ inspector.
Around them, animated conversations in French, voices speaking at the same time. He looks at John. He wishes he had more common ground with him, and not this over-demanding heart. He observes other men with their sons. There is a way of being that some men have that allows them to take into each other their unfolded lives.
Then he brightens, remembering something. When John was small, he had a gift. In an uncanny way, he knew things. He would open a drawer or lift a cushion and silently hand Mona the lost keys or the missing sock she was searching for. Who’s that? she would ask him, pointing to the face in a photograph – an old friend or distant relative that he had never met and could not possibly have known - and he would turn his solemn little face towards her and simply say the name. Margaret. Frank. One winter’s evening when the electricity was knocked out during a storm he walked calmly out to the hall, opened the little door of the boxed-in alcove, and touched something – a loose fuse perhaps – and returned light to the whole house. Martin does not know when his powers vacated him, or if John even remembers having them. When we remove ourselves from a certain state of being, he thinks, we lose our powers. Or maybe the ordinary murk of life settles on us and cannot be rinsed away.
‘She told me a story, yesterday – Ellen,’ he says, ‘that I hadn’t known, about my mother. And her brother, the boy who died in the Civil War.’
‘I didn’t know Mamó lost a brother in the Civil War,’ John says. He leaves down his fork.
‘She was young, maybe only ten or twelve, and one of her older brothers was active – but on the anti-Treaty side. She was very attached to him, apparently – Seán was his name. Anyway there was an ambush somewhere in North Kerry, twenty miles from their home. And he was shot, and buried hurriedly in a makeshift coffin by his companions… Ten years or so later, when she was a young woman herself, she found his grave… She had the coffin dug up and brought back to the family plot – against her father’s wishes, against the other brothers’ wishes too – you know how it was, brother against brother, father against son… But she did it anyway – she defied her father and had him buried in the family grave.’
‘Like Antigone…’ John says quietly.
He nods. ‘Antigone’s daughter, Ellen called her.’
They are quiet for a moment. ‘But that’s not it,’ he says, ‘that’s not all of it… When they dug him up and opened the coffin, there were scratch marks on the underside of the lid…. He’d been buried in a hurry - because his mates were on the run.’
John is staring at him, as he had stared at Ellen yesterday. Your god must have been in hiding that day, he had wanted to say to her.
They order coffee. ‘Your mother was half thinking we might visit ye in September,’ he says, after a while. ‘She probably mentioned that in her emails, did she? I think she’s anxious to see the girls. They grow up so fast.’ They had only ever seen John’s children – twin girls – once. They had had the notion that, in retirement, there would be frequent trips to Boston.
John frowns. ‘September might not be the best time, Dad. It looks like we’ll be moving to D.C. I hadn’t planned on saying anything until everything is signed, but I’m expecting to take up a new job there. Rachel is already house-hunting.’
He is taken aback. ‘Oh, not to worry then. Not to worry. Sure we can go another time.’ His sips his coffee. They are quiet for some moments. ‘I thought you liked MIT? And Boston?’
‘I do like MIT. And Boston. So it was a big decision. But this is… well, it’s an important research project.’
‘What sort of project? Which university?’
‘It’s not at a university. It’s a government job in Maryland – at the Institute of Research for Chemical Defence.’
Martin finishes his coffee. He has never heard of this institute. ‘That sounds… I don’t know… Chemical defence? What does that mean? Biological weapons, germ warfare?’
He has never had reason to question the nature of John’s work, though there was a moment, years ago, as he watched a documentary that raised questions about some biomedical study – distorted test results, rules sidestepped in the race to succeed – when he had felt a flicker of worry. The description of the research itself, too, had troubled him. He was left with the impression of organisms under duress, cell nuclei being tortured. He knows how driven, how fiercely competitive, John can be. He knows, too, how easy it is to deviate from one’s path, and transgress.
‘No, Dad. Nothing like that. I won’t even get close. My research area is tiny, very specialised. No new plagues incubating in my petri dish!’
He nods. All around them the buzz of talk, the clatter of plates. Out in the city, the late-evening traffic, shutters coming down, river water flowing. He sits back in his chair. He has to have faith, like any father, that he has raised a son whose actions are governed by his conscience. He lightens up. ‘I suppose Homeland Security will be running a check on your mother and myself.’
‘Oh, you can be sure! It’s probably already well progressed!’
They talk then about John’s brothers, the economy, property prices. But he is not fully attending. There is something gnawing, something more he wants – a pledge, a promise, some… certainty. He summons words but cannot form a question. Then the words slip away and his eyes come to rest on John’s hands – beautiful, white, the fingers long – and as he stares a memory from years ago surges up, as clear and bright as the waters of the lake behind him on that day. He is at a mooring on Lough Corrib, readying a boat to take the boys out on the water. They are there in the background, all three of them, mucking about. Martin must have walked back towards the car to fetch something when he came upon John – who was about ten then– hunkered down among the reeds. He was cupping something in his hands. When he saw his father he shaped a word with his lips. Shhh. Poised, concentrated, he opened his palms slowly to reveal a frog, pale-green, tiny, unearthly still. He had a white plastic straw clasped between his fingers and then, in one deft movement, he upended the frog and held its head tightly in one hand, and, with the straw in the other, began to prod at its rear end until he found his target and shoved the straw into the frog’s anus. Before Martin could fully comprehend what was happening, John was blowing into the other end of the straw and the frog’s speckled belly was expanding and maybe Martin spoke or shouted – but from this distance he cannot be sure – and in an instant the frog exploded and tiny fragments of skin and innards dropped soundlessly to the ground.
His heart is racing. He can feel the blood throbbing in his temple. He looks across the restaurant, over the heads of the other diners until, little by little, his heartbeat slows and his thoughts begin to drift. Images from the day return: the pigeon in the Luxembourg Gardens, the little sailboats, the dead soldier on the Orangerie wall. The Germans used to crawl from the trenches, he wants to say, delirious with thirst, and drink from sulphuric puddles as the shells rained down. Scorching the earth with Heraclitean fire. That scientist was holidaying in Maine in the summer of 1945, he remembers. In the early evening of August 6th he and his wife and young son went for an after-dinner walk above a shimmering bay. They met a man who told them about a new kind of bomb that had been dropped in Japan that day. The scientist had no hand in the bomb but he got the whiff of his own mephitic smell. He had a vision of the Devil’s carnival then, blood drops from hell, the end of the essence of man.
Darkness is falling as they walk back to his hotel. ‘Maybe ye’ll get home for a visit next year,’ he says. He can feel the parting sickness rising inside. ‘Your mother would like that.’ He pictures them all at the kitchen table in Galway. Morning, the sun streaming in, Mona frying the breakfast.
‘Yes, hopefully. Maybe next summer... Or you’ll be out to visit us before then.’
They say their goodbyes at the hotel entrance and he watches John walk away. When he has disappeared he turns and walks in the opposite direction. Further and further they move away from each other. He looks at each face on the street, as in a slow dream. He thinks of the scientist above the bay, sunlight flashing on water. He begins to intuit the shudder, the intimation of terror, that all of nature must have felt that day, must go on feeling, because of what lies within any moment, because of what grows and ferments in vials and cylinders and the minds of men. I see you John, in your white coat, mixing and measuring and dispensing, pushing elements to new limits. And how do you know your phenomena are mute? How do you know your burette is not susceptible, your shy elements are not crying out, Enough!?
He walks on. Tomorrow he will cross the Channel again. In the early evening he will touch down in Dublin and drive west across the country, as atoms of light leave the sky. There is a stretch of motorway beyond Loughrea where the land rises and the light is different. He always feels its approach, the bare sky above him, a gathering within him. He presses the pedal then, million-fuelled on his own air-built thoroughfare, and drives into this throng of light, this confluence of earth and sky and road, half expecting something new to be constellated.
This is a revised version of a story which was originally published in The Irish Times last summer as part of our This Means War series