Chapter One: Signs and Wonders
The lady sitting next to Paul Seneschal asked if he was an American.
He shook his head, then looked down at his shirt and back at the woman. Why, Paul wondered, did she think him an American when he was dressed like anyone else on the train? Was it something about his face?
She smoothed brittle hair at the nape of her neck and Paul could see that her hands were stained with dime-sized spots.
"Spiro Agnew resigned," she said. "That's the only reason I inquire." She pursed her lips.
"Who's he?" Paul asked, scratching his ear lobe. The lady leaned toward him.
"You're not very old, are you?" she said.
She allowed herself a puckered smile. "Shame on you. You're old enough to be interested in news developments. Agnew was the vice president of the USA, but his misbehavior brought him down. Others will follow ,we can hope. Where are you headed?"
"So am I," she said. "I've lived there all my life, on King Edward Street."
Paul was short. A mop of black hair nearly covered his ears. With the lady's gaze fixed firmly upon him, his large brown eyes wandered from the window to the lady and back again.
"You don't look nineteen," she said. "More like fourteen. Do you have relatives in Winnipeg?"
"I see. Well then, certainly you don't live by yourself. Perhaps you're off to college?"
"I'm from St. Jean-Baptiste," he said, "forty minutes south of here." Paul shifted in his seat. His watch was slow, but he knew the train was due in soon. From the window an early October landscape rolled by. Endless flat land was dressed in yellow and orange. Trees lifted their gray branches into the air. Rows of ripe sunflowers hung their black heads mournfully beside fields of stubble. The lady cleared her throat. When Paul looked at her she was rearranging the contents of her purse.
"You speak French, then?" she asked.
He nodded, but she was not looking at him.
"Of course, you're not obliged to answer me," she said. "I'm just an old lady, and I assure you that old ladies are accustomed to being ignored."
Paul kept his eyes on her but hardly knew what to say. She wadded a Kleenex and jammed it into a corner of the purse.
"You're shy," she said. "But you'll learn to get over that and keep up a healthy conversation."
"I want to become a monk," he said.
"A monk. At the Cistercian abbey in St. Norbert, south of Winnipeg."
The lady blinked. "Oh," she said. "Why would anyone do that?"
"To find meaning in life," Paul responded.
"Oh dear," she said, and became mute.
At the Winnipeg station, people rushed about while a loudspeaker announced arrivals in English and French. Paul carried his satchel to a yellow cab and crawled into the back seat. He waited while the driver finished a cigarette.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
"St. Norbert. The Cistercian abbey."
"The cistern what?" the driver asked, flicking hilive cigarette butt onto the pavement. Paul had been through this before.
"Take 42," he said, "and beyond the Perimeter about two miles, you'll see a street sign on the right that reads rue des trappistes. Go down that road to the gate." The man drove off with a clean screech of his wheels. Not a word was exchanged as he sped along city avenues. When they passed the University of Manitoba the car radio squawked, but the man did not answer it. Soon, the cab was south of the city perimeter near the Red River, where high-rises no longer obstructed the view, businesses vanished, and
houses moved back from the street, making room for front yards. All the while, the taxi meter brought up higher numbers with a brisk little whir.
Paul opened his wallet. Before long, they were heading into open farm country along a gravel road while Paul counted bills. The cabdriver hit his brakes and stopped in a cloud of dust. Before them a wrought- iron gate blocked the road, and large letters formed an arch above it that read sic transit gloria mundi. A white house stood to the left of the gate, and Paul saw nothing beyond it but tall elm trees in yellow foliage. An iron fence ran to the left and to the right, protecting both the house and the old elms from the road. The cabdriver turned to his passenger.
"What is this? A cemetery?" he asked.
Paul shook his head and counted out bills of various colors.
"Don't look like a soul around here," the driver said. The place did look abandoned. Paul got out of the cab, and a minute later found himself alone in a cloud of dust that followed, like a long tail, the disappearing cab.
He pulled his jacket collar up. Elm leaves fell through the air and a smell of rotten pumpkin came from inside the gate. He picked up his satchel and went to push a black doorbell at the entrance to the house.
Several minutes passed before a stout monk appeared. His head was shaved. A black scapular fell from his shoulders to his knees over a white robe that was discolored with use around the hip pockets. Under the skin of his nose, a network of tiny veins ran like circuits.
"Ah oui," he said, and turned without another word. He walked down a dark hall and Paul followed him inside, asking a question in precise French.
"Will I have the same room as last time, Brother Henri?"
"Oui," the monk said as he opened the door of a small chamber. No sooner had Paul placed the satchel inside the room than a clear pitch met his ear, ringing brightly. He recognized it as the sound of a metal clapper against a bell.
"Ah," the monk said as he hammered the face of his wristwatch. "Come, come." He waved impatiently for Paul to follow.
They left the house from a second door, this time within the enclosure of the gate, and walked up a road through the trees. The monk put his hood up over his head. "This time, you are coming to join?" he whispered. He spoke French without formal pronouns, and Paul was freshly amused by the clpped pronunciation.
"No," he answered. "But very soon, I hope."
"Then, for Vespers, is necessary you still sit outside the cloister by yourself, upstairs. Tomorrow, novice master come visit you at breakfast."
Beyond the trees, a large building became visible; from its fieldstone foundation blond brick rose high into the air and formed a series of arched clerestory windows. The church had a solid, heavy appearance. The bell tower, anchored in the middle of the structure, was capped by a large silver dome, and the tolling that came from it grew louder as they drew near. Paul had to cover his ears.
The monk pushed a heavy door and led the way up a narrow stairwell to the balcony. As they reached the top of the stairs, the bell stopped, its echo died away, and Paul could hear Brother Henri's labored breathing.
Beyond the loft railing, what Paul could see of the vaulted nave reminded him of a high forest canopy. "Thank you," he whispered. The monk nodded and left. The church was silent, and Paul sat for a while, looking about. A sweet smoke hung in the air like the remnant of a cedar fire, and rosy evening light warmed the windows, tinting the blank white walls. The glass was bright. Running his hand along the wooden bench, he noticed dust.
Because Paul knew what to expect, he got up and moved to the railing; below, forty monks stood in silent attention, facing away from him like the ceramic guards of an emperor's tomb. He smiled. A lean voice from the choir began to sing in fluid notes.
"Deus, in adiutórium meum inténde." The choir of monks responded in Latin, and the church was awash in unhurried melody from the Middle Ages. Paul wondered if music was the thing that brought him to the abbey. Liturgy in his hometown church was not smooth and solemn. His parish priest spoke the Mass, and it plodded forward like a courtroom proceeding. But here, Latin chant and incense made of the worship something mysterious and pure. He closed his eyes and listened.