5 Years: These Inadequate Hands

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the original “Davies Tale,” the first in a series of autobiographical fiction that I’ve written off and on over the years. I’ve always loved this story. While some of the details were changed, the gist of this story is entirely true. (Originally posted February 4, 2009)

The summer before Davies’s senior year of college, his bishop told him that he was going to work at summer camp. Davies raised a hand to his forehead in salute and said “yessir” without hesitation because he was several steps into The Process to become an Episcopal Priest. The amount of deference he was compelled to show the purple shirt equaled that of what he would show if he had a favor to ask of Don Corleone. This was the summer before the Red Sox won their first world series since 1918; the summer before he started looking over the stacks of polisci books to what his future held; the summer before he got himself into a two-year relationship, which eventually fizzled a few weeks before he planned to ask for her hand in marriage. It was the summer before all the real life stuff that college is so good at ignoring.

A skit at Peterin, the real camp behind Camp Madison. (We fake bishops had corporate sponsorships for our miters.) With the Rev. Siobhan Patterson and the late Rev. Keith Butler.
A skit at Peterin, the real camp behind Camp Madison. (We fake bishops had corporate sponsorships for our miters.) With the Rev. Siobhan Patterson and the late Rev. Keith Butler.

Davies had never been to summer camp as a child, so he didn’t know what to expect as a counselor. Until he googled “James Madison Conference Center,” he also didn’t know the camp was named after a bishop rather than a president. Nor did he know where it was located. As it happens, Madison is three miles down River Road from the no Starbucks town of Lucado, West Virginia. Lucado (pronounced LUCK-a-do) is in the Eastern panhandle of the state. Unless you are already in the Eastern panhandle, a geographical idiosyncrasy of West Virginia (called the Appalachian Mountains) means you pretty much have to leave the state to get to Lucado. A piece of the Potomac, in which Davies once learned to fly fish, gives River Road its name. If you are looking for nowhere on the map, three miles down River Road from Lucado, West Virginia is pretty close by.

Despite Madison’s lack of a cell tower within fifty miles, kids came to the camp. Davies could see their love for the place in their wide, expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in meds and decorate nametags. They loved the camp because it was out-of-doors; they loved it because it broke the monotony of what-do-you-want-to-do-I-don’t-know-what-do-you-want-to-do summer vacations; they loved it because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. In his own teenage years, Davies learned that places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Madison is one of them.

Senior high camp was the biggest week of the summer, with over five score hormone bombs flipping off the diving board, sneaking into the woods, crushing on each other, and complaining every day at breakfast because every day unfairly started in the morning. By midweek, Davies was one among many counselors with nerves fraying, ready to throw up his hands. The counselors used a code word to notify each other if they needed to be extracted from the clutches of a clingy/adoring/needy/smelly/nettlesome camper. As the days wore on, alert campers began wondering what “rich brownie candy bars” had to do with a pet rabbit or the athletic physique of that dreamy counselor.

On Friday morning, Davies thought his body was going to go on strike: he had never been so exhausted. But there was just one more day and night and then he could rest, mercifully. The camp shared Eucharist every day, and Friday’s included a special healing service. When the priests asked for counselors to assist with the laying on of hands, Davies volunteered because he had never done it before.

During the opening song, Davies noticed the new campers who were reticent at the beginning of the week singing with everyone else: You are my Prince of Peace and I will live my life for you! With the addition of those new voices, the camp’s volume went from ten to eleven. The peace took just as long as it usually did because, as usual, everyone tried to hug everyone else. They shared Communion, and then the campers settled into their seats for the laying on of hands. The usually boisterous crowd was quiet all of a sudden as if the mystery of God hit them all at once with the least awkward silence imaginable.

Davies walked to the back of the chapel with his priest friend Rick and a pair of sisters, Jennifer and Elise. The first camper stood up and turned towards them. Davies looked at his hands. He turned them over, saw the lines and the fingerprints and the dirt under his nails. What are these supposed to do?

The camper sat in a metal folding chair, and Rick leaned close. The boy had a pimple on his lip, which quivered as he spoke in a stage whisper: “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” Davies kept looking at his hands, his inadequate hands. Rick motioned for Davies and the sisters to touch the camper’s shoulders. Davies reached out one hand tentatively, lightly, like he was testing a bruise on the boy’s arm. Rick touched oil to the camper’s forehead and prayed. Davies found himself mouthing words that sprang unbidden to his lips.

Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.

This became his breath prayer. Over and over again, he breathed these words in and out. God, use my inadequate hands for healing, use my inadequate heart for loving, he prayed. Without thinking of the consequences, he prayed with fervor he didn’t know he possessed: Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken campers who keep coming and coming.

Their need for healing was so great. Who knew such young people could feel such pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, feeling the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss.

Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.

Davies kept whispering this prayer with his fingertips and his breath. He kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill him so the campers could know the healing presence of God. The last camper stood up from the metal folding chair. Davies had forgotten his own exhaustion in the half hour of laying his hands on the campers. They trickled out of the chapel on the way to the dining hall. The counselors and priests who had participated in the healing gathered around the altar for a final prayer. They held hands and prayed. As they let go of each other, Davies felt that little squeeze of his hands from friends on either side.

He backed away from the altar. A tear rolled down his cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, Davies was crying. He sat down in the second pew. Just as suddenly, he was no longer crying—he was bawling, blubbering, sniffling, choking. He had no restraint. His chest heaved, his cheeks reddened. For twenty minutes, he sat with his head in his hands, weeping. As he wept, he felt in his gut and in the soles of his feet the truth: God, you granted me exactly what I asked for—an excess of Spirit, an overflowing of your healing power. The fat tears forming a puddle at his feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of him. His ragged breath was the Holy Spirit releasing from his body, bringing him back to a level of Spirit that is safe for one human being.

As Davies began to calm, he noticed a hand on his back. Elise had stayed behind and sat silently with him. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand him a tissue. She had let Davies weep, alone and yet not alone.

He rose to his feet, shakily, drained and full at the same time. They walked across the field to the dining hall. The campers had gone back to their lodges for rest time, and all the grilled cheese was gone. But one of the ladies at the dining hall saw them, fired the griddle back up, and cooked them a pair of sandwiches each. Elise thanked her for this small act of kindness and slid a plate across the table to Davies.

He munched on his grilled cheese for a few minutes. His head pounded with the exertion from crying, but a new feeling a peace was emerging between the throbs. He looked down at his hands again, sticky now with molten cheese. These hands, God? These inadequate hands?

Runaway (Davies Tales # 10)

Aidan Davies knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what. Several nights over the last couple of weeks, his father, Alastor, had arrived home, walked straight into the kitchen without a “hello” to anyone, slammed the door of the microwave (in which Lucy had placed his cold dinner), and stabbed the buttons with enough force to make the microwave hop back, as if trying to protect itself from his fingers.

The morning after the most recent of these nights, Lucy told her son that his father had been meeting with various factions of the church’s leadership. “What’s a faction?” asked Aidan, as he pushed around the oatmeal in his bowl.

Lucy held tight to her warm mug with both hands. “It’s a group within a bigger group that doesn’t agree with the rest,” she said.

“And there are factions at church?”


“And they don’t like Dad anymore?”

“Some don’t.”

More questions clambered to the tip of Aidan’s tongue, but a long sigh from his mother told him that she wasn’t up for an interrogation. So he chose just one final question to ask, one that meant more than all the others.

“Are we going to have to move again?”

At these words, Aidan noticed tears brimming in his mother’s eyes. Lucy put down her mug and ran the sleeve of her bathrobe across her face. Then she stood up, pulled a brown paper sack from the counter, and handed it to Aidan. “Here’s your lunch,” she said. “You’re going to be late for the bus.”

She kissed her own fingers, touched his cheek, and gave him a long look. Again, he saw her eyes swimming. Then he watched her wander away in the direction of her bedroom. I wonder if she’ll still be in there when I get home, he thought.

That afternoon, Aidan put his schoolbag down on the kitchen table and poked his head into the master bedroom. “Brigid?”

Aidan’s sister looked up from making their parents’ bed. “I just put her in the shower,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom.

Aidan moved to the opposite end of the bed and began stuffing the sheet between the mattress and box spring. “No, no.” said Brigid. “You never do it right.” She untucked the rumpled sheet and made a perfect hospital corner. “Like this.”

“Look at you two, making my bed.” Lucy came out of the bathroom wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, with a towel wrapped turban-style on her head to keep her hair from dripping. “My babies are so thoughtful.” She pulled Brigid and Aidan into a hug.

“Mom, we’re not babies,” said Aidan.

“Oh, I know that,” said Lucy. “But you’ll always be my baby.” She reached for his cheek, but he swatted her hand away. She reached again. Another swat. Lucy switched tactics and came at him with tickling fingers. Brigid joined in and soon the master bedroom, so still and stagnant and quiet for hours on end, was filled with laughter.

Then the doorbell rang, and the laughter ceased. Aidan saw Lucy’s eyes widen and then shut tightly. “Brigid,” she said. Her voice was clipped, commanding. “Take you brother upstairs.” She stood up. “Please.”

On his way up the back staircase, Aidan could hear the door opening and his mother’s voice sounding too bright, too controlled. Then he was safe in his room surrounded by LEGO bricks until a few hours later when he heard his father’s voice roaring in the kitchen downstairs. He could hear every word even through the layers of walls.

“I told them that if they ever came to the house, I would, I would…” Alastor’s voice trailed off. Aidan crept out of his room and perched at the top of the stairwell. Brigid sat next to him and held his hand. Just then Alastor found his train of thought again. “I come home to find my wife crying on the floor in the kitchen. Who do these people think they are? My wife, curled up in a ball. I told them that if they ever disturbed you, I would, I would…” He trailed off again, but this time he punctuated his words with what sounded like a punch to the side of the refrigerator.

Then there was silence. Aidan and Brigid tiptoed downstairs and found their parents both sitting with their backs against the dishwasher. Lucy’s face was tearstained, but she wasn’t the one crying now. Alastor was sniffling and hacking and wheezing and all Lucy could do was stroke his cheek with a trembling hand.

Two days later, Aidan walked across the street to the church. It was a crisp morning, but he didn’t put on a jacket since he lived next door. He slipped into the sacristy and donned his acolyte robe. He lit the candles on the altar and retrieved the big cross, which he wasn’t able to lift last year but could now. Alastor joined him at the back of the church and they walked in together. Three-dozen or so parishioners stood as they entered.

When it came time for the sermon, Aidan settled himself in his customary seat in the chancel. His father gave him a faint smile before taking a deep breath. “John the Baptist called the people he talked to a ‘brood of vipers.’ Well, you know what? It seems we have a similar brood here. On Friday evening, I came home to find my wife sobbing on the floor because someone had come…”

Just then, a man stood up from a pew in the middle of the church. “Why don’t you just sit down and shut up,” he said.

Alastor fell silent, and the man’s voice echoed throughout the nave. Then Aidan could hear his father whisper, “So…you, too.” Aidan looked from the man to his father and back again. And then he burst into tears. Alastor walked the few steps to Aidan’s seat. “Do you want to go home, son?” he whispered.

Aidan couldn’t find words, so he just nodded numbly. His father pulled him from the seat and embraced him. Then he carried him to the side door of the church. And Aidan ran away, his tears streaming and the skirt of his vestments flapping in the wind. He wished his house wasn’t so close by. He wished he could go home and be safe. He wished he could run until the church and those factions and those people hurting his family would disappear on the dark side of the horizon.

First Time, part 2 (Davies Tales #9b)

(For part 1, please click here.)

Aidan Davies and his father walked out of the sacristy. “Wait a moment,” said Alastor. “Let me look at you.”

Aidan stopped and turned in a circle. He had on more layers of clothing than any sane person would wear in the month of June. But he always joked that the psychological testing that candidates went through before becoming priests was done to make sure you were crazy. On top of his suit trousers and black shirt, Aidan wore a white alb, a garment which he used to pretend was a toga when his childhood fantasies built ancient Rome in the churchyard. On top of the alb, he wore a green stole, which more than a handful of people had called a “scarf” when they paid him compliments for its subtle patchwork design. And on top of the stole, he wore a green and gold chasuble, which weighed on his shoulders like a down comforter. Aidan flapped his arms to move the chasuble off of his hands. Of course I’m going to spill wine on it today, he thought. It’s a good thing, then, that it cost more than my first car. Aidan smiled ruefully and gave the chasuble a quick once over, looking for previous stains. There weren’t any.

Alastor stepped to his son and straightened the neckline of the ornate garment. Then his hands suddenly went to Aidan’s shoulders and his father gathered him into a strong embrace. “I remember when you wore a chasuble on Halloween. Your mother had to pin it to keep it from dragging.” He pushed Aidan back to arms length. “Now look at you.”

Alastor choked off the last words, seemingly as surprised as Aidan at his sudden show of emotion. Alastor kept his hand on Aidan’s shoulder as they walked to the back of the church where the early service crowd was trickling in. Churches fill up like movie theaters, Aidan thought.

His father stuck his head outside and clucked good-naturedly at a few stragglers. As they settled in to their pew, Aidan made a quick head count. Two dozen or so. Pretty standard for an early service in the summer. Well, if I do trip and hit my head on the altar only a few people will see it. He glanced at his watch and gave a thumbs up to his father. Alastor led the way as they entered the nave and processed down the center aisle. Aidan had never walked behind his father in procession. This is something new, indeed.

The first half of the service came and went. Aidan kept stealing glances at the altar, wondering how something he used to play under could seem so imposing now. At the Peace, he shook hands with the two-dozen parishioners and embraced his father once again. Then he turned to face the altar and his parents’ advice from earlier that morning came to him. Go to the bathroom before you put your chasuble on. Check. Remember that God’s there too. Aidan looked at the cross and out the window to the misty morning sky. He looked back at the altar and at the people assembled. His mother’s advice had seemed so obvious when he sat perched on the edge of her bed. She might have said, “Remember that gravity will keep you from floating away.” But here in the church, with that special table in front of him, Aidan could not remember, could not see how he could go and stand behind that table and invoke God’s presence.

Aidan pulled his father to one side. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said. He tugged at the collar of his alb. “I don’t think I can consecrate communion.”

Alastor steadied his son with a look. It was the look the veteran paratrooper might give the new recruit before pushing him bodily from the plane. “And what makes you think that you’re the one doing anything,” he said simply.

Aidan stared blankly at his father. “You’re just the hands and the mouth,” said Alastor. “No delusions of grandeur. God’s doing the heavy lifting.” Aidan nodded and turned back to the altar. Alastor stepped up behind him and whispered, “And God does the heavy lifting whether or not you realize God is here.”

Once again Aidan let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. God is here. God is here and that truth has nothing to do with me. No delusions of grandeur. “Okay. I’m really ready this time,” he said.

He mounted the steps to the altar and unwrapped the chalice. He folded the veil and laid it aside. He put the burse on top of the veil. He dumped a few dozen wafers onto the paten. He took the two silver cruets from the credence table and set them next to the chalice. Then he froze and his eyes went wide. He looked at the two containers: they were identical and they were solid metal. One held wine and one held water, but there was no earthly way to tell them apart. He pulled the stopper from one and glanced inside. Too dark. The liquid could have been either. He checked the other. Looks the same. He picked them up to feel the weight, hoping the cruet containing the wine would be fuller. No such luck. He put them down and gave his father a sidelong glance, along with a half grimace that he hoped communicated, “Help me!”

Perhaps, his father didn’t understand his attempt at telepathy. Perhaps, his father was trying to loosen him up some more before the Eucharistic prayer began. Perhaps, his father was getting him back for all those times that Aidan held up his watch to signal that a sermon had gone on too long. Whatever the reason, Alastor Davies gave his son a shrug, and not just any shrug, a comically expansive shrug, like one you might use while playing charades.

Aidan did his best to hide a scowl. Then he did the last thing he could think of. He tipped just a bit out of one cruet. Water. Of course. He switched cruets and poured. A more experienced priest wouldn’t have panicked. A more experienced priest would have known that less than ten percent of the congregation would have any clue that something was amiss at the altar. But Aidan had been a priest for less than twenty-four hours.

And yet, as his panic subsided, Aidan noticed something else filling its place. What is it? Aidan searched within himself before beginning the prayer. Ah, there it is. Peace. And what’s that next to it? Yes. Joy. Aidan lifted his head and smiled at the two-dozen people scattered around the church. “The Lord be with you,” he said.

In the end, he didn’t spill wine on the chasuble. He didn’t trip and bang his head on the altar. He didn’t have a panic attack. All he had to do was jump and pull the ripcord. And the wind caught his chute and brought him safely to ground.

Back at the kitchen table later that day, Aidan paused in the middle of eating his grilled cheese sandwich. Aquinas was curled up on his lap, sleeping soundly. Lucy and Alastor sat across from their son. They hadn’t stopped beaming at him since they arrived home. “So, Dad, I have a question,” he said.

“The Sox have a day game. Starts in about half an hour,” Alastor said.

“No, that’s not it.” He took a bite. The cheese stretched as he pulled the sandwich from his mouth. “How do you tell which cruet holds wine and which holds water?”

Alastor smiled at his wife, who reflected it back at him. He put on his best professorial tone and said to his valedictorian, Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Master of Divinity, seminary-trained new priest of a son, “You smell them, of course.”

First Time, part 1 (Davies Tales #9a)

On the third Sunday in June, Aidan Davies woke up in the bed in the guest room of his parents’ house. This was not his room, though it featured several artifacts from his childhood like a haphazardly designed display at the natural history museum. This is where young Aidan struggled to open the broken drawer of his bureau for his entire childhood, he mused, looking at the dingy piece of furniture. If you’ll direct your eyes above the dresser, this is where he simply had to own a poster from each Star Wars film, even The Phantom Menace. And now, if you’ll look to your right…

Davies’s thought trailed off as he examined another cheap piece of furniture that had been in his room for as long as he could remember. Since his contact lenses were bathing in solution in the bathroom, he couldn’t really see the squat shelving unit. But he could tell you exactly how much the middle shelf bowed under the weight of old books and how many CD cases would fit up top. However familiar the furniture was to him, though, the room itself was not his. His parents had moved when he was a junior in college, and he had needed directions to find his own house when he came home for Christmas that year. The move had happened five summers ago, and during that interval, most of Aidan had stopped grieving the loss of his bedroom. But the part of him, the part that would rather root around in the closet under the stairs for his old LEGO sets rather than go through with the events today held in store for him, still cherished the memory of the sky blue walls and beanbag chair reading nook of his old house.

Today. Sunday. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. He didn’t have to get up for another hour, but he was restless. Today was an important day. He rose, brushed his teeth, and showered. He pulled the dark suit off the hanging bag and laid it on the bed. He donned his black shirt and snapped the white collar in place around his neck. He looked in the mirror. Yesterday morning, he was a deacon; today, he was a priest. A dozen other priests and Davies’s bishop had laid hands on him and prayed to God to make Aidan a priest, too. I suppose it took, he thought as he reached around and touched his left shoulder blade. His father had laid a firm, yet trembling, hand there yesterday, and Aidan could still feel a faint echo of the blessing held in Alastor Davies’s touch. He traced the lines of a cross, imagining he could feel the relief carving of his tattoo through his clothing. Then, picking up his jacket, he padded out of the room.

“Aidan?” The door to his parents’ room was cracked to let the cats in and out and his mother had spotted him.

“Morning,” he said as he poked his head around the doorframe. Lucy Davies was up to her chin in sheets and blankets, despite the early summer warmth rising with the sun. Anselm had annexed most of Lucy’s pillow, while Aquinas staked his claim to the foot of the bed.

Aidan’s father began the tradition of naming the family’s cats after medieval theologians during his time in seminary. Lucy took Aidan and his older sister Brigid to the animal shelter, and they argued all the way home over what to call their new pet. The argument continued inside the house, making Alastor look up from his reading. He tapped the cover of the book: “How about Bernard?” he suggested.

“But it’s a girl kitty, daddy,” Brigid said.

“No problem, dear. Bernard was from Clairvaux, so we can call her “Clair.”

Brigid beamed at him. Aidan, at age three and a half, hadn’t followed the conversation very well, and he thought his father had said “éclair,” which Aidan had recently discovered to his delight, so he beamed too. Clair was with the Davies family until the summer before Davies himself began seminary, but she had succumbed to a combination of old age and fear of the vet’s office. Six months later, Lucy and Alastor brought home two new cats. “Who are you studying in systematic theology right now?” Alastor asked Aidan over the phone.

“Anselm. Aquinas is next,” came his son’s reply. Luckily, the cats were both boys.

Aidan sat on the corner of the bed and scratched Aquinas behind the ears. “Nervous?” his mother asked.

He looked at her. When his mother asked him about his emotional state, she was usually reflecting her own feelings. What does she think is going to happen? Maybe that I’ll trip on my vestments and bang my head on the altar, he thought. Lucy had always had a fairly vivid imagination about how his various sporting engagements could end in brain damage or missing fingers. Perhaps, she’s confusing church with soccer. “Mom, the words are printed, I took a class in this, and I’ve been watching Dad do it my whole life,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

The last three words sounded hollow, even to him. Lucy eyed him appraisingly. “If you say so, dear. Just don’t forget that God is there, too. That’s the whole point.”

She spoke the last words in the middle of a yawn, rolled over, and began rhythmically breathing a little too convincingly to be properly asleep. Aidan took that as his cue and left the room while Anselm resettled himself on Lucy’s pillow. As Aidan shut the door, Lucy’s breathing slowed, and Aidan wondered if anyone in the history of the world had ever feigned realistic sleep. It’s like wondering if the refrigerator light stays on when you close the door, he thought.

He moved down the hallway, passing the collages of his and Brigid’s infancy, of his childhood athletics and Brigid’s recitals, of their prom pictures and graduations. He arrived in the kitchen to find his father sitting down to his ritual bowl of oatmeal. You could set your watch to his Sunday morning routine. Aidan sliced off two thick pieces of the banana bread Lucy had made yesterday and sat down opposite his father. Always the sports section first. “Did the Sox win?” Aidan asked.

“Walk off double in the tenth. Hit the top of the scoreboard just out of reach of the left fielder’s glove,” said Alastor without looking up from the paper. “But they blew the save in the ninth so the extra inning heroics shouldn’t have been needed.”

“So the musical chairs at closer continues,” Aidan said. During the spring and summer (and into autumn if the Red Sox made the playoffs), baseball accounted for about eighty percent of the conversations between Aidan and his father. Even on a day like today we’re talking baseball. Aidan picked up the discarded sports section as Alastor moved on to the comics. I find that oddly comforting. Aidan’s hand strayed once again to his left shoulder blade. Alastor looked up. “Nervous.”

The word wasn’t a question as it had been when Lucy had asked. It was a statement, one that a veteran paratrooper might say to a new recruit before his first jump. It was the kind of statement that gives permission to feel the emotion but withholds permission to remain safely in the aircraft. “A little, I guess.”

“Just remember,” Alastor began.

“I know, I know,” Adain cut him off. “Mom already reminded me. God is there, too.”

“That’s true.” Alastor suppressed a smile, the crinkles around his eyes growing heavy. “But that’s not what I was going to say.” Aidan put down the sports section. “What I was going to say was: don’t forget to go to the bathroom before you put on the chasuble.”

Aidan let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and started laughing, first quietly to himself and then louder and louder. Alastor joined in, and soon they were laughing just for laughter’s own sake.

An hour later, Aidan left the restroom at the church. He thought he might vomit like he had before many a high school soccer game. But he didn’t. His father was waiting for him, an ornate poncho draped over one arm. Aidan took the chasuble, put his head through its hole, and smoothed out the sleeves over his alb. He turned to the mirror in the sacristy. Well, you look like a priest, he told himself. You’re first celebration of Holy Communion. Are you ready?

Aidan put a hand on his father’s shoulder and pushed him toward the doorway. “I’m ready,” he said.

(…to be continued.)

Cloudburst (Davies Tales #8)

Aidan Davies stepped onto the platform of South Station. He looked left, then right, then left again. The trickle of passengers disembarking the commuter rail train turned left, and Davies joined them. As he headed for the terminal, a drop of rain hit his nose. He quickened his pace, but the drop only brought along a few dozen companions. Davies looked up and frowned at the sky. The sun shone through the clouds’ ragged edges, gilding them with light but failing to penetrate the bulk of the cloud, which was becoming increasingly darker. It’s a good thing the subway stops at the hospital, Davies thought.

Today would be his third day in a row traveling into the city to Mass General. The accident had happened late Saturday evening, and he had arrived at the hospital bleary-eyed but alert early Sunday morning, wearing his clergy clothes and the “I’m supposed to be here” expression that he saved specifically for the ICU. The family had been on a nighttime sail when nine-year-old Janice stood up at the wrong time. The boom hit her full in the back of the head, knocking her simultaneously unconscious and overboard. The rescue chopper brought her straight to the hospital in Boston, leaving her stricken parents on Nantucket to await the ferry the next day. Janice was brought up to the ICU from the OR an hour before Davies arrived. A patch of her dark ringlets was cut away at the base of her skull, revealing a dozen hasty sutures. He held her hand gingerly so as not to disturb the IV until midmorning when her mother pelted into the room. Davies then melted into the background, feeling suddenly inadequate in the face of the mother’s frenzy.

Two days later, Janice was still unconscious in the ICU, and her mother had not left her bedside. The doctors had not used the word “coma” but Janice’s mother feared the worse. With her husband at the office for a few hours, that fear was her only companion until Davies arrived. Fat lot of good I’ve done the past two days, he chided himself. An unconscious girl is one thing. A desperate mother is something else. I wonder when she’ll figure out I have no idea what to do.

He checked his mobile phone. Plenty of time to get there, he thought. Just a few stops up the Red Line. He swiped his card, jogged down the stairs, and flung himself aboard an idling subway car. Perfect timing, he thought, beaming around at the passengers as if he had just landed the dismount. A few of his fellow travelers smirked at him, shook their heads, and looked away. Just then the PA system crackled to life, and the man next to him pointed in the general direction of the indistinct voice coming over the speaker: “Due to a fire at Charles/MGH station, the Red Line is delayed. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”

Chagrined by his train-catching heroics, Davies shared a shrug with the man, leaned nonchalantly against a pole, and called up a mental map of downtown Boston. MGH isn’t too far a walk from South Station, he told himself. Just through the Common and over Beacon Hill. He looked around at the waiting passengers and wondered how long the train had been stuck at South Station. Just then two young men, frat boys by the looks of their untidy hair and polo shirts half tucked in to display massive belt buckles, launched themselves into the car as Davies had done. He smirked at them, shook his head, and exited the car.

He walked back up the stairs into South Station. There’s a buck seventy I’ll never see again. He ordered a panini and ate it quickly as he walked out of the station onto Summer Street. Davies oriented himself toward the Common and trudged up the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and his laptop bag bouncing against his back. He looked up at the sky again and the amateur meteorologist in him told him he would have been better off with the train delay. The sky had darkened considerably while the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority had been thwarting him below ground. Licking his fingers, he tossed the remains of his hurried lunch into a trashcan and strode toward a store a few blocks from the station.

Five minutes later Davies emerged with a new umbrella under one arm. It’ll never rain now, he thought triumphantly, assured that reverse psychology works quite well to influence colliding low-pressure systems. Davies licked his lips, suddenly thirsty from his sodium-laced sandwich. I wish I had bought a bottle of water at the store. “Too late now,” he said aloud to no one in particular. Just then, he walked past a van painted in violently neon shades of green and orange. Two college-aged women, wearing shorts and the kind of socks that basketball players wore in the 70s, stood at the rear of the van, each holding a case of violently neon sports drinks.

“Have you Thrust today?” one of them asked Davies as he walked by, and he could tell she enjoyed asking such a seemingly provocative question to a guy wearing a clerical collar.

“No, I can’t say I have,” Davies said.

“You should try it,” said the other, and she held out a bottle sporting the word Thrust in lightning bolt-shaped letters. The bottle was filled with a liquid that looked like it was distilled from traffic cones.

“Thanks.” Davies took the drink and continued up the street, trying to resist the urge to look over his shoulder at the nubile Thrust promoters. He chugged the neon fluid, hoping that it would quench his thirst before he noticed how awful it tasted. He crossed Tremont Street and entered Boston Common as he emptied the last drops of the traffic cone flavored beverage into his mouth. Then he heard the rain.

With the sound of a thousand car washes a solid sheet of water was approaching rapidly from across the Common. So much for tricking the weather, Davies thought. At least I have this handy thing. He opened the umbrella and hunched beneath it just as the deluge reached him. After a minute of slogging across the open green space, his trousers felt like they had just come out of the washing machine. Davies reached the far end of the Common and looked through the rain for the street his phone’s GPS had told him to take over Beacon Hill. He walked one block down the Hill hoping for a street sign. No such luck. This city, apparently attempting to stymie foreign military occupation, keeps signage to a minimum, he mused ruefully. Davies took the next right and walked fifty yards. This isn’t it, he thought, seeing the street terminate in a row of brownstones a couple blocks ahead. He turned to retrace his steps. Then the rain did the impossible and worsened.

With the same vigor he had used flinging himself into the subway car, Davies dove for the relative dryness of a sheltered doorway. He squeezed the excess water out of his pants, dried his glasses, and oriented himself. I am one street down too far. Davies waited out the worst of the rain hunkered down in the doorway. After ten torrential minutes, the sun blazed through the spent clouds, raising steam from the street. Davies left the shelter and continued his charge up Beacon Hill.

Taking a left on Cambridge Street, he walked the last few blocks to the hospital. The imposing complex of parking garages and mismatched hospital buildings rose up on his right. He stopped to cross the intersection at Cambridge and North Grove. The cars navigating Boston’s surface streets glistened after the downpour. There it is, he thought, storm clouds forming in his mind as they had done in the sky. Through the main doors, down the hall, up the elevator, around the ward, into the room. Davies shivered. I’m just cold from the rain, he told himself, though he knew it wasn’t true. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? I am so ill-equipped for this that it would be laughable if the situation weren’t so serious.

The traffic light changed and the walking person blinked across the road, telling him to cross. Davies stayed put. After half a minute, the light changed again, and a red hand replaced the person, warning pedestrians not to cross. Davies stared at the hand. He closed his eyes and the blurry afterimage of the warning signal danced across his eyelids. He took a deep breath and held it. The hand fixed itself in his mind, a symbol of something he told people everyday but often forgot to believe himself. The hand slowly dissolved into a voice in his head, his own voice but with deeper resonance and greater clarity. You were thirsty and I provided drink. You were drowning in the rain and I provided shelter. Do you honestly think that I will break this pattern when you enter that hospital room?

Davies exhaled slowly and opened his eyes. The red hand shone from the signal across the street. The voice echoed faintly in his mind. You are always in the palm of my hand. Yes, even you, Aidan. The hand changed back into the walking person, and Aidan Davies crossed the intersection. He pushed through the main doors of the hospital, strode down the hall, rode up the elevator, paced around the ward, and walked into the room.

Green Tea (Davies Tales #7)

Aidan Davies slipped out of his daydream and refocused his eyes on the bright screen of the computer warming his legs. The purple walls of the coffee shop, so captivatingly gaudy when he first arrived, melted into the background outside Davies’s headphoned and laptopped bubble. Customers claimed tables, ate, drank, bussed, and left. Employees emptied the trash and called out orders. The traffic rushed silently by on the wet street outside. All Davies saw was the screen and various vague shapes in his peripheral vision. All Davies heard was the lush sonorities of Beethoven sonatas through his headphones. The mug holding the dregs of his green tea was long forgotten.

The sermon writing that was supposed to be occupying Davies’s attention kept losing the battle to tangential diversions dedicated to researching unimportant details on the Internet. I should probably shut off my wireless, thought Davies when he was halfway through reading an article on the etymology of the word “tangent.” I’m having tangents about my tangents. Bad sign. Davies closed first the web browser and then his eyes. Focus, he told his tired mind. Just then, Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata invaded his consciousness, and he listened for the move from Grave to Allegro molto e con brio. “There it is,” he sighed under his breath.

But as the Allegro ran its course and the slow section of the piece reasserted itself, another sound began to pick and to nag for Davies’s attention. He opened his eyes and flicked them to the right. A young woman, whom Davies had idly noticed when he sat down and then promptly forgotten, was talking on her cell phone. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the young woman’s brow crease. Her free hand went to her mouth. Oh no, thought Davies, as his internal pastoral alarm (what he called his spidey sense) whirred up from his gut. The woman began to collapse inward. Here it comes, thought Davies.

“How long will it take me to get to the hospital from the airport?” Her voiced trembled as she asked the question, fear mixing with at least a veneer of bravery. Davies closed his eyes again. For half a second, he tried to ignore the woman. She’s not one of mine. I’m not wearing the uniform today. I’m just here to drink green tea. But when the half-second ended, the muscles in Davies’s arms and legs tensed. His chest constricted. For a horrible moment, he was unmade, a traitor in his own body.

Davies glanced up at the ceiling. Even though he often preached that God’s presence was everywhere, he had never quite shaken the notion that God was located in the general direction of “up.” I know, he said to himself, they are all mine because they are all yours. But what can I do? Again Davies flicked his eyes toward the young woman, who was stabbing her cell phone with a shaking thumb.

He played through one scenario in his mind: Hi. My name is Aidan. I’ve been eavesdropping on what I’m sure is a very distressing set of conversations for you, but it’s okay because I’m a priest. Davies shifted uncomfortably in his seat and mentally crossed out that option. I’m not a superhero. I can’t run to the phone booth and do a quick change into my collar and black shirt. I can’t save her with the platitudinous ramblings of a stranger.

With the hero plan discarded, the resolve to do nothing crept back into his consciousness and this time it brought reinforcements. You don’t know her, so why should you care, asked Apathy. You’ve got enough on your own plate to worry about, reasoned Vanity. Go get another cup of tea. Maybe she’ll be gone when you get back, coaxed Craving.

They were convincing. The traitorous feeling, which Davies knew upon his first thought to feign ignorance of the young woman’s plight, did not resurface. No chest constriction. No tension in his extremities. Rather, Davies felt pleasantly sleepy, like a soldier who wore eighty pounds of gear all day but never saw combat. I resisted the urge to feed my own messiah-complex. I’m doing quite well. “Self-Differentiated.” He said the last word in his mind as if he were at a podium lecturing. The word echoed through his conscience. He smiled. Someone watching Davies could have seen a mite of smugness skitter across his grin.

Aren’t you forgetting something, whispered another voice. Davies looked across the battlefield from where he crouched with Apathy, Vanity, and Craving. It’s nothing, they said, Keep your head down. Get more tea. Davies looked at the soggy teabag in the mug and the sticky rings staining the table. You idiot, whispered the voice again, this time closer, from the adjacent foxhole. Davies climbed out of the trench and crawled to the mouth of hole from where the voice had come. The Reinforcements clamored and caterwauled for him to come back, to return to the safety of self-satisfied ignorance.

I can’t approach the distressed woman and I can’t do nothing. So what can I do? If the whispering voice could have taken corporeal form, Davies felt sure it would have slapped the back of his head. Pray for her, it said.

Davies glanced back at the woman. She continued to hold her cell phone to her ear, an electronic flotation device keeping her from drowning in the choppy waters of the unknown emergency. I lift her up to you, Lord, who already knows the distress in her heart. Use me as a beacon emanating your peace. Connect my soul to hers for these few moments when our proximity makes us kin. Grant her the strength to bear the pain that is ahead of her.

Davies exhaled. He turned his attention back to his computer screen, though his thoughts were all eight feet away at the woman’s table. A few minutes later, she shut her cell phone, put her computer in her bag, and walked out of the coffee shop. The Lord be with you, prayed Davies. Then he glanced at his watch and realized it was time for him to depart, as well. Davies gathered his things, placed his mug in the plastic dish tub near the door, and walked out into the rain.

Ashes (Davies Tales #6)

Aidan Davies bared his teeth at the cement lion, which guarded the steps to the church. The lion snarled back and pawed the air. Davies hefted his projectile, took aim, released, and the snowball exploded on the lion’s face. Defeated, the beast slunk back to his dozing pride in the corner of the boy’s imagination. A triumphant Davies took the steps three at a time and entered the narthex.

He knew that today was special because he was in church on a weekday. I even got to miss the bus this morning, he thought as he stepped into the sanctuary. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in pre-dawn stillness, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. Davies looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. I guess no one came. Sighing, he glanced at his watch.

“Aidan,” a voice boomed from the sacristy door, “I thought you were coming.” Davies looked up and smiled at his father. Alastor Davies met his son halfway down the aisle and pulled him into an embrace. Aidan buried his face in the soft silk of Alastor’s purple stole, and his short arms got lost in the folds of his father’s surplice. “Doesn’t look like anyone is coming this morning,” Alastor said. “We should probably get you to school.”

Aidan extricated himself from the hug and stepped back. “But what about the service?”

“It’s just the two of us. I think your math class is more important.”

Aidan scowled. “One-quarter plus one-eighth is three-eighths. See, I already know how to do fractions. And I want to wear my ashes to school.”

Alastor couldn’t help but grin at his son. Aidan’s scowl softened into an expression of earnest, insistent innocence that only ten-year-olds can pull off. “Well, I guess missing one hour of fourth grade won’t do too much damage,” said Alastor with mock resignation. Then he winked at his son conspiratorially: “We can stop for pancakes on the way. Just don’t tell your mother.”

The pair processed to the altar rail hand in hand. Kneeling together, Alastor handed Aidan a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. Aidan read the lessons aloud, determined not to stumble on any of the big words. “Do you know what fasting is, son?” Alastor asked after finishing the Gospel lesson. “It’s when you don’t eat for a long time,” said Aidan.

“Right,” chuckled his father, “but it’s more than that. We fast in order to make room for God in our lives. We are so full of all kinds of things all the time that we often forget that God is the one who should be filling us. When we fast we intentionally open up a hole for God to fill. And the more parts of us that God fills, the better we are. So, can you think up something to give up to make a space for God this Lent?”

“Can I give up giving up stuff?” Aidan said. Alastor raised an eyebrow. Aidan retracted quickly, “Just kidding. How about I give up irritating Brigid?”

“I’m sure your sister would appreciate that. Alright, are you ready for the ashes?” They rose and walked to the altar. Aidan stood on his tiptoes to see the ashes in a small glass bowl sitting on the fair linens. The ashes were made from the dried fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday. They were gritty and a few shades lighter than black. Aidan held his breath and closed his eyes. His father knelt down and swept the hair off of Aidan’s forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” Alastor whispered. Then he scraped his thumb gently in two lines, vertical and horizontal. Bits of ash fell on Aidan’s nose, and Alastor brushed them off. Aidan let out his breath.

“Your turn,” said Alastor, and he offered the glass bowl to his son.

“You mean…I get to do yours?”

“I hope you will.”

Aidan took the bowl in trembling hands and dabbed his thumb in the ashes. For a moment, his imagination sprinted to moon rocks and volcanoes. Then it returned, and Aidan looked up at his kneeling father. He scraped the vertical line. “Remember that you are dust.” He scraped the horizontal line. A few silent seconds passed. Alastor whispered, “And to dust…”

“And to dust you shall return,” Aidan finished. They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Alastor pulled his son into a second embrace, and Aidan left an ashy thumbprint on the back of his vestments.

Suddenly, the sun crested the stained glass window. Blues and purples and reds and yellows sparkled on the altar rail and choir stalls. The riot of color danced down the chancel steps, and the cement lion roared a salute to the morning.

Fifteen years later, someone asked Aidan Davies when he knew he was going to be a priest. “I think some part of me knew that Ash Wednesday morning,” he said. “Not the part that does the thinking. I didn’t know in my mind. I knew in the part that helps you catch your balance when you’re slipping on ice or that lets you know when it’s time to get up when you haven’t looked at the clock yet.

“I knew in that deep place inside. I knew in the space that God filled that day, but which got buried soon after and took a dozen years to excavate.”

Guillotine (Davies Tales #5)

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Aiden Davies looked up from tracing patterns in the Oriental rug. The priest gestured to the patio door. Davies stood up, smoothed his jacket, and walked outside.

Twenty-four hours earlier, he had boarded a plane in Nashville. The irony that it was Halloween weekend had not escaped him. He was flying to West Virginia to attend a meeting, at which no costume or mask would be tolerated. The Commission on Ministry awaited: in the space of a four hour meeting, they would form a recommendation for the Bishop as to whether Davies should be allowed to remain on the path to priesthood. This was another hurdle, a big one, in the overarching plan that he had only recently begun to cherish in his heart. He arrived at the motel and passed an uneasy night, a product of nerves and an unfamiliar bed. He had convinced himself that sleep was hopeless when…

…Davies was in the chambers of the Supreme Court…the bench was impossibly high…the faceless members of the Commission peered down at him…the bench was a rock wall…he checked his belay and started climbing…halfway up a door appeared…he walked through, the door shut behind him, and he heard the bolt slide home…the cell had two piles of old, grimy hay and a slit of a window high out of reach…a man in a ragged smock sat in the corner… “I can’t do it, Charles,” he said… “Who is Charles?” Davies asked…he looked down and saw his hands trussed with the climbing rope…he was on a cart in the midst of a screaming crowd…the same man caught his eye, turned, and walked away… “Mr. Carton,” Davies cried, “It’s supposed to be you.”…the sun glinted off something metal…

…Davies sat up, knuckled his eyes, and grabbed the bedside clock. 5:00am. The dream was gone. The meeting was in three hours. He got up, paced the room, attempted a few incoherent prayers. He showered, dressed, and ate cereal from a plastic disposable tub at the continental breakfast. At 7:30, he arrived at the retreat center. Horses watched him from behind a whitewashed fence. The mountains rose in the distance. As the fog lifted, the gray morning gave way to all the colors of autumn. This place is too beautiful a setting for defeat, Davies thought.

He walked through the open front door and stood in the hallway. He took a couple of deep breaths, smelled coffee, followed the scent down the hall, and poked his head through a doorway. There they were – no Supreme Court dais or headsman, just a dozen and a half folks, some in black clergy shirts and collars, others in suits or dresses, all with coffee. “Aiden, welcome,” said a woman near the door.

He recognized her from his stint as a camp counselor during the previous summer. “Hello,” he said, and his eyes swept the room. He knew almost half the group on sight. So that’s why the Bishop wanted me to spend the summer at Camp Madison. A tall, goatee-ed priest stood up and shook Davies’s hand. “Here’s the drill,” he said, “We have here both the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. We’ll split into four groups, and you and the other three aspirants will have an hour with each group. Got it?”

“Yessir,” said Davies. The priest looked as his watch. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a few hours. Don’t forget to breathe. There’s really no reason to be concerned.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Davies tried to turn his grimace into a smile. Careful, you idiot: you’re not shooting the breeze after a campfire. But before he could gauge the priest’s reaction, the woman who first greeted Davies said, “You’ll be staying in here, dear.”

She patted the seat next to hers, and he sat down. The other three groups filed out of the room, leaving a small band clustered near Davies. “Will you open with prayer, please,” said the woman. Is this part of the test? He looked at the eager faces around him. Obviously, yes. “Sure…uh…Let us pray,” stalled Davies. “Heavenly Father, please be with us today as we…as they…as the Commission on Committees…I mean, the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee attempt to discern your will. Thank you for bringing us all here safely; in your Son’s name. Amen.”

“Amen,” they echoed. C-minus, if you’re lucky. “Let’s start with your family. You’re father’s a priest in this diocese,” said a man to Davies’s left.

Davies waited for a question, but the man seemed to be finished. “Yes, he is. He’s actually on the Standing Committee, but my cousin’s getting married today, so he’s in Georgia right now.”

“Do you see yourself as following in his footsteps?”

“I guess you could put it that way,” Davies said, “but I tend to think that we’re both following in Jesus’ footsteps. At least, I hope so. It’s not the family business or anything. I was deadset against priesthood until I got to college. Then I was able to be my own person, and I realized that my proximity to dad sheltered me from a call of my own.”

He looked around, but no one was clamoring to ask a question: “There was a time at my internship in Texas,” Davies continued, “when I was preaching and I realized halfway through the sermon that I was just channeling my dad. Then I dropped the microphone, stooped to pick it up, and I was me. It was a pretty cool moment.”

The questioner broke in, “I want to caution you, son. Try not to talk about your father too much today. We want to hear about you.” Well, then why did you ask a question about him? “Uh…yessir,” Davies said instead.

The hour came to a close quicker than he thought possible. The welcoming woman pointed him to his next meeting. He was ready to pray this time. Solid B. The hour passed and he moved on to his third meeting. He expected to pray again, but no invitation came. Instead, another priest he had met at camp waited for him to sit down and then said, “So. You’re 21.”

It was a statement with a tinge of accusation. Davies took a quick breath and chambered a verse bullet about not being despised because of your youth. But just as he was about to fire Paul at the ornery priest, something stopped him. Do you realize you’ve been grading your own prayers? Give it up already. What will be will be. “Yes, I am,” said Davies.

“That’s awfully young.” The hour ticked uncomfortably by. Finally, Davies rose, expecting to see a pool of his own sweat on the chair. At least I didn’t talk about dad. He moved on to his last meeting. Once again, they asked him to pray. “Gracious God,” he began, “thank you for these people who have answered the challenge to discern who you are calling to be ordained in your church. Grant them wisdom and courage; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

I’ve never prayed this much out loud in my whole life. Davies smiled. The goatee-ed priest led the questioning, and before Davies knew it, the morning was over. He sat with the three other aspirants as the joint-committee deliberated. The minutes stretched into an hour, and Davies found himself tracing patterns in the Oriental rug.

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Davies looked up and saw the goatee-ed priest gesturing him to the patio door. He stood up, heart thumping like it used to when a fly ball was hit to him in centerfield. They walked out on the porch, and he half expected to see a guillotine among the wicker chairs, but last night’s dream was just a dream. The priest put his hand on Davies’s shoulder. “Before I say anything else,” he said. Oh God, help me. Oh God oh God oh God (…there it is…A-plus…) Oh GOD. “I want you to know that it is our recommendation that you be approved for postulancy.”

Davies barely heard the rest of the speech. The affirmation was just another piece of the plan, and his head was ten years in the future: I’ve finished seminary and gotten married to my girlfriend – I know we’ve only been together six weeks, but she’s The One. I’ve been called to a large church in a suburb of big city. Our son’s starting Tee Ball next spring, and our daughter is putting everything in her mouth. Our black lab likes to catch Frisbees. It’s perfect.

Of course, most of that never happened. But those are different tales.

Baby Boy (Davies Tales #4)

During the summer between his first and second years of seminary, Aidan Davies grew up all at once. The summer began with a breakup and ended with a baptism, but those are pieces of a larger story. This story is about a baby boy.

Davies was a chaplain only because his badge said he was. For that first month, he didn’t particularly feel like one. I’m not a chaplain, but I play one at this hospital, he often thought. His clinical pastoral educators – the hospital’s professional chaplains – had borrowed their teaching style from mother birds. On the third day of the summer, they pushed Davies and the seven other interns out of the nest and watched as eight pairs of arms, flapping wildly, disappeared in a downward spiral. The wingless interns crashed into the rocky bottom, and, miraculously, found their patients there.

Rock bottom was on the top floor of the hospital, but Davies had no patients on that level considering another intern had chosen the ICU as his normal beat. However, that night, Davies was on-call, and the on-call pager had beckoned him to Intensive Care, and he stared at the message on the little screen the whole elevator ride to the twelfth story.

From the moment he stepped off the elevator, the next several hours blurred together in Davies’s mind. Attending physician speaking…parents deciding to take their baby off the machines…Baby Boy Rodriguez breathing on his own…and then not…wailing…holding…silence. Davies walked the parents to their car. He had very little Spanish, so no one spoke. But grief, it turns out, is a universal language. The car pulled away, with fewer passengers than it should have been carrying, and Davies watched it turn a corner to the lower levels of the parking deck.

He arrived back in the ICU room to find Mary Ann, one of the baby’s nurses, silently wiping down a machine. Cords lay in neat stacks on a rolling table, and a small pile of dirt and bits of candy wrapper filled a dustpan near the door. Davies allowed his gaze to find the tiny bed, upon which the body of Baby Boy Rodriguez still lay. He walked over and looked down at the baby – a perfect porcelain sculpture in a clown-adorned onesie. “He looks so peaceful,” said Davies.

“Yeah,” said Mary Ann, and she came to stand by Davies at the bed.

“When I first saw him this evening, he had all these tubes in him. He looked like he was…but now…” Davies’s voice trailed off.

“He was in a lot of pain,” said Mary Ann, and Davies suddenly realized that this nurse had known the Baby Boy as long as his parents had. Three months in this room, but never alone.

“I’m glad that he was able to take a few breaths on his own,” said Davies. Mary Ann continued as if finishing his sentence, “And his mother could hold him while he was still alive.”

Davies stayed by the bed while Mary Ann continued cleaning the equipment, and the silence renewed. Davies stared down at Baby Boy Rodriguez. He reached out a hand, and with the lightest pressure, placed it on the baby’s forehead. He tried to pray. He moved his hand and took the little balled up fist into his own palm. He imagined God holding the Baby Boy and his parents and Mary Ann and Davies himself in the same way.

A noise made him look up. A small machine had fallen to the floor. “What does that do?” Davies asked.

“It helps with respiration,” said Mary Ann.

It kind of looks like a belt sander, thought Davies. And they were quiet again. Theirs, however, was not a conversation broken by silence, but a silence broken by conversation. The noises of the padding of feet, the pulse of machines, the typing on computers all happened in the obscurity outside the room. But this room was a different world, an in-between world. Between Baby Boy Rodriguez’s own anguished writhing and that of the next patient was peace and stillness and silence.

Davies’s tears traced pathways down his cheeks and fell to the floor. Mary Ann looked up from her cleaning. “The first time is hard,” she said.

“It doesn’t get any easier though, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t. Every time is hard.”

Davies wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “It would be easier if you didn’t care for these children so much.”

Mary Ann looked down at Baby Boy Rodriguez. Davies realized that before she started cleaning the room, she had cleaned and dressed his body. “The moment you stop caring is the moment you have to stop doing this job,” she said.

And the silence renewed. Mary Ann finished her cleaning. Davies continued to hold the hand of the dead Baby Boy. A few minutes passed, and then the glass door slid open. Another nurse carried a folded piece of plastic with a zipper running through it. “I didn’t realize it would be white,” Davies said, as he watched the nurses unfold the body bag. Mary Ann affixed a toe tag to Baby Boy Rodriguez’s ankle and then gently lifted him, as the other nurse slid the bag underneath. Davies touched the baby’s forehead once more, and then the nurse zipped the bag closed. Mary Ann covered it with a sheet, and picked it up, like any mother carrying her child.

Davies and Mary Ann processed to the elevator and rode down to the main level. Several turns through labyrinthine passages brought them to a nondescript door. Davies punched in the code, which only pathologists and chaplains knew. The morgue had four cold chambers. Davies opened one. Mary Ann laid the bag containing the body of Baby Boy Rodriguez on the metal shelf. Davies shut the freezer door and mouthed a whisper of gratitude to Mary Ann. She placed a hand on Davies’s arm for a moment, echoed his thanks, and walked from the morgue – back to the living and the dying. Davies turned and saw his fuzzy reflection in the four, shining metal doors.

And the silence renewed.

Inspiration (Davies Tales #3)

The irony was unbearable. A theology paper about the Holy Spirit due in less than twenty-four hours, and Aidan Davies had less than nothing. No topic. No thesis statement. No inspiration. No inspiration for an essay about the Spirit, the source of in-SPIR-ation. Davies snorted and shook his head. I hate irony. He focused again on the glow emanating from the screen in front of him. He and his laptop had been engaged in a staring contest for the better part of the morning, and the blank document on the screen was winning handily. He reached into the empty bag of pretzels, forgetting about the last half dozen failed attempts to discover untapped sources of pretzel crumbs from the bag’s darker recesses. No thesis statement. No inspiration. And now no pretzels either.

Davies stood up abruptly. Black spots appeared in the corners of his eyes. He swayed and grasped the back of the chair to steady himself. He shut his eyes, willing the oxygen to double time it to his brain. A deep yawn built in his chest, which he exhaled in a frustrated groan. Then he stretched, and his fingertips brushed the ceiling of his dorm room. He looked up and pushed the square tile with his middle finger. He knew that by evening he wouldn’t be tall enough to touch the paneling above him. No oxygen in my brain. No inspiration. And I’ll be getting shorter for the rest of the day.

Davies looked down at the screen. “You win,” he said aloud to the blank document before shutting the laptop with perhaps more force than normal. He stuffed the computer into his messenger bag and cast around for his trainers. He laced up his shoes, slung the bag over his shoulder, and stalked from the room. He didn’t know where he was going. He had only a vague notion that he might walk a bit before lunch. He passed Mark Riley’s room, whose door was ajar as usual. Mark looked up from a comic book (He calls them ‘graphic novels,’ Davies reminded himself) and said, “Where you off to, brother?”

Davies poked his head into the room, “I dunno. It’s just this Holy Spirit paper. I’ve got—” He cupped his hand into a zero. “Zilch.”

“Same here,” Mark said grinning. “That’s why I’m doing some background reading.” He held up the graphic novel and tapped the title: The Spirit. Davies grinned back, appreciating Mark’s ability to justify his procrastination.

Leaving the dormitory, Davies drifted up the twisting sidewalk. He inhaled the perfume of freshly-cut grass and felt the early spring sun warm his hair. He wandered past the library, down the stairs behind the academic building, and across the parking lot. He watched a pair of squirrels zig and zag up a tree trunk before losing them in the budding canopy. He followed his shadow to the sporting field, its rolling expanse dotted with the stragglers of the flocks of migrating geese.

The moment he stepped onto the field, the geese took flight. Davies watched them until he could no longer distinguish their honking from the ambient noise of lunch hour traffic. As his eyes lost the geese to the distant clouds, a sharp breeze reminded Davies that winter hadn’t quite given up yet. He watched the breeze spiral through the trees, the new leaves spinning and dipping with their unseen partner. Words echoed across Davies’s empty mind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”*

Wind and Spirit, Davies thought, remembering his Greek class from the first semester of seminary. They’re the same word. When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the wind, he could be talking about wind or Spirit or both. Wind and Spirit act the same: you can’t see the wind until it moves the leaves. You can’t see the Spirit until it interacts with us. You notice the Spirit when you see the change, the movement in our lives.

Davies raced back up the hill, his messenger bag bumping his back with each stride. He reached the bench outside the administration building and put his hands on his head. His breath came in ragged gasps as his lungs and heart protested the sprint after a winter of idleness. Several minutes later, he was able to catch his breath. Catch your breath. What a strange phrase. It’s not like a baseball or anything. More words echoed in Davies’s mind: “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”**

Breath and Spirit, Davies thought, reaching all the way back to high school Latin. Respiration comes from the same root as Spirit. When Jesus breathes on the disciples, they ‘catch’ the Holy Spirit. Every time I take a breath, the Spirit is breathing life into me. The Spirit is always with me, changing me, moving me, giving me life. ‘Giver of life’ – that’s what the Creed says.

Davies sat down on the bench and opened his laptop. No staring matches this time. He looked up at the leaves pirouetting in the wind. He took a deep breath. And he began to write.


* John 3:8

** John 20:22