Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “In My Father’s House There Are Many Rooms,” by Connor White

In My Father’s House There Are Many Rooms

Ian chose a pew towards the back. His small, gnarled frame and dark yellow jacket were drenched in the midmorning rain. He could hear the storm plashing against the setts, and the sound echoed against the deep and ancient stone walls of the abbey, into the hallways and on the heavy oaken doors and back out into the storm. A sparrow, seeking shelter from the downpour, flew into the rafters high in the ceiling as the monks shuffled in from the cloister, their habits damp at the shoulders and fringe. They clutched leather bibles to their chests, protecting their hymns and sacred songs the same as they would any relic. Ian watched their shadows march across the floor, and he counted the devout: twenty-four, the same as always. Father Partridge, the abbot, offered Ian a small nod before taking his place at the head of the choir. He breathed, and they sang.

Their voices swept out in a long, droning, melancholic cry that filled the whole of the abbey with the serenity of Mass. Their lips moved together in perfect unison of every word, in a shared commitment to their faith and to their hymn. Ian felt their chant, this thousand years of song, fill his chest and nest in the depths of his person. He fell into his chair and closed his eyes, shrugging his coat and the cold. He fell into a darkness that was as velvet, soft and prickling at his skin when he brushed his palm against it. Alto and Tenor and Baritone and deeper voices still vibrated the darkness, sending shivers rippling over his fingers and up his toes. They shook his eyes in their sockets. They rocked him close to sleep, but he did not fall into sleep. He stayed hovering in the place between his waking life and the darkness, and it drained him to float in that between.

After their song, the monks conversed quietly in the colors of stained glass, and Father Partridge glided down the steps of the choir. He reached out and laid a hand on Ian’s shoulder.

Mr. Taggart. It is good to see you again.

Ian pushed the abbot’s hand away. Your boys sounded flat today.

I will speak to them about it.

When they’re not flat, they put me right to sleep if I feel like it. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Father Partridge smiled. He sat down in the pew next to Ian, and they listened to the monk’s hushed conversation together, together with the rain. The abbot sat with his hands in his lap. They were calloused and smelled of beeswax.

You needn’t have come out all this way in such a storm, he said. Your health is important.

Not as important as it used to be, Ian said.

Ian, please. Michael would not want you in poor spirits.

You don’t say what he wants. He can’t tell you, or me, or anyone.

You are strong, but you mustn’t bear this pain. There is someone there for Michael. I came across some scripture some time ago, that I believe you can take comfort in: Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. For in my Father’s house there are many rooms.

The abbot closed his bible. Your son is glorified in the kingdom of Heaven, for the Lord has received him there. Safe, and his heart is filled with love.

Ian stood from the pew. He felt the cold wash over him as he pulled his jacket from the bench, splashing Father Partridge with droplets that dressed at his cheeks. He spat on the chapel floor and turned to leave.

That son-of-a-bitch had no right to receive anyone, he said.

Please take care of yourself, he heard the abbot call.

Ian steered around puddles of muddied water splattered along the road, watching the tips of the green pines hugged by a rotting fence dampened in the rain. It smelled sickly sweet and like moss and sweat, and heavy rolls of clouds tumbled and crashed in the sky above his head; the storm would get worse before it abandoned them. Another sparrow sat on one of the rotting fence posts, feathers dripping as he cowered under an overhanging branch. Ian turned to a road that cut deep through the Heldon wood, drowning him in dark shade. Through the whipping trees, he saw a herd of cattle, and heard a Labrador fetch for his owner. He heard rain patter against rusted iron gutters.

Findhorn was a small village, with few visitors. The little town was quiet save for the lapping of waves slipping back from the Moray Firth. As Ian drew closer and smelled sweet salt and brine, he spied the dune road he and Michael walked for years of their lives, a tiny path that ran the edge of the village. Over gently rolling hills of sand and little pebbles and tawny grasses, they had searched through reeds for frogs and seabirds’ feathers. Ian took the dune road, to his modest house on the northern edge of the village, towards the marina, towards his own boat.

The others in town had learned to leave him alone. Only Father Partridge still asked his questions. Michael had liked it when they visited the abbey. He would search the wood nearby and share with the monks what he had found, things like little speckled eggs and dark stones covered in pill bugs.

There were few others at the marina, mostly the other fishermen hauling their catches over the gangplank in woven baskets and plastic tubs, and the boy, who ducked into Ian’s boat’s, behind the low wooden railing.

I see you, boy, he said. What are you doin’ on my boat?

A gull answered as he stepped aboard, shrieking with the creaks and moans of the seeping deck. Ian saw a tangle of rope on the bow, and a rubber boot kick the rope away. He found the boy hugging his knees to his chest, hiding against the wall. He was a small boy with tow-colored hair, wearing a blue rain jacket and dark rubber boots, and he couldn’t have been older than nine.

You lost? Ian asked.

Oh, I didn’t know this was your boat, the boy said.

Aye, this is my boat. Why are you sneakin’ around on it?

I just wanted to see what a real fishing boat looked like. The boy finally looked at him, with one grey eye and one that blossomed with purple bruising. Ian stared at it.

How’d you know this was a fishin’ kind of boat? he asked.

I saw you and your son at the market. You sell your fish there. My dad buys from you.

Ian frowned. Good for him. Time to go.

He hauled the boy to his feet, pulling him by his sleeve. The boy tripped on a cleat when Ian tossed him back across the gangplank and scraped his knee.

Tell your dear old dad that you still need some learnin’ to do about respectin’ other people’s property.

The boy looked back at the boat with his grey eye, and his black eye, with a look that filled Ian with shame. But he was running away, and Ian let him go. He strode to the front of the boat and restacked the rope the boy had messed. He brought the anchor out of the water, laid it on deck, and he smoked a pipe for several moments to calm his nerves. The fish would not be plentiful today; they would have been thinned by the others and the seabirds and larger fish. There were grounds further out into the Moray, near Burghead, with ample fields of mussel and crab. That would have to do.

One last catch, Ian said to himself.

Down in the hold, the only light slipped between cracks from the deck above. Boxes of nets and line and dried goods were held to the walls with bungee cords frayed near the hooks. He needed the crab cages, crude boxes made of driftwood and fishing line that he and Michael had lashed together on the dune road, on a clear day in the middle of a long summer. He grabbed two and went onto the deck. He went back down, and got three more.

In one of the cages sat the gun, the dirty metal glinting dully in the low light. Ian picked it up, and tossed the chamber open: six shots, but he only needed one. One last catch. The reality of it stumbled suddenly into his hands, making him clumsy and fearful. The gun clattered to the floor, and that is where he left it. He drove the boat out of the marina, away from Findhorn, and into the Moray Firth.

The grounds near Burghead were calm. This stretch of water lacked the rocky beds that churned nutrients upwards, bringing the largest schools, and the other fishermen and shearwaters and gulls and razorbills. Here it was quiet, where Ian could listen to the rocking of his boat, and to the beating of his own heart. He kneeled down and cast off the cages several meters from one another to cover a wide area. Plastic buoys tied to their lines would mark the cages from the surface, and when it came time to haul them back onto the deck, Ian would reach out with a wooden pole and pull them to the boat, where he would survey the catch. But today, it didn’t matter if the catch was good.

In the corner of the hold was a small table he had nailed to the floor. Maps and pages torn from almanacs sat there, weighed down by stones. On the corner of the table was a picture of Michael.

Ian picked it up. Michael was smiling; they had gone out on a bright sunny day for their very first catch together. Ian had spent hours teaching him everything he needed to know about their boat, and Michael had been eager to learn. He had told him how to follow the gulls and shearwaters to find the best fishing grounds, and how to spot algal blooms from several miles away. Michael had caught a young cod that day, the one in the picture. That very fish sat mounted above the desk, onto a wooden plaque they had carved together. The little grey fish stared at Ian with a gaping jaw.

Your son is safe and glorified in the kingdom of Heaven, the abbot had said. For the Lord has received him there.

Michael swept everything on the table to the floor with his arm, howling in rage. Angry tears welled in his eyes and he beat his fists upon the table. He heard the shatter of glass underfoot, and fell to his knees, desperately searching. He found Michael’s picture under one of the maps, the frame broken into pieces and a corner beginning to rip. He looked at Michael’s face. He saw the storm. The wreckage. The body, floating quietly in the water.

And Ian lay there, crying.

He wanted the gun. It had to be now, before he was swallowed whole with grief. It was there on the floor where he had left it. A sudden lurching wave tossed the boat, and the gun slid into the darkened back of the hold, coming to rest against a dark pair of rubber boots. He met the boy’s eyes, and shouted.

The hell are you still doin’ on my boat, boy? he said. You stow away, you little shit?

He got to his feet, and reached for the boy, grabbing onto his rain jacket. He shook him.

You had no right. You had no right to come here.

The boy was crying. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hear anything. I just wanted to be on a real fishing boat.

But you did. This was my place. You had no right.

Ian wanted to hate the boy, to strike him. He raised his fist, but saw the boy’s black eye, and thought himself a monster. He dropped his hand to his side.

How’d you come across that welt? he asked. The boy was too frightened to answer.

I asked who gave you that black eye, boy. He received no answer again. Ian got to his feet, pulling the boy up as well. He brushed him off, and took the pistol from his feet.

He sighed. I didn’t mean to scare you. You surprised me, is all.

The boy held his head low. I’m sorry I surprised you. I’m sorry I heard that about your son. I know you miss him a whole lot. I didn’t mean to make you mad.

Ian stuffed the picture and gun into his jacket. You want something to eat?

The galley was sparsely furnished, with little food and even less comfort. A wooden table and two chairs sat nailed to the floor, and a single light bulb swung from the ceiling, back and forth with the heaving of the boat. Ian pointed to one of the chairs for the boy to sit in while he boiled water. He offered him crackers, too. The boy’s feet did not yet reach the floor. He swung them back and forth, squeaking his rubber boots.

What’s your name? he asked.

Colin.

You from town?

Colin nodded. We’re from Inverness. We moved out of the city because my mom got headaches when I was at school.

Ian lifted the pot from the stove. He poured two cups of tea for themselves, handing one to Colin. They fell quiet. Ian did know what else to ask the boy, and Colin seemed content to sit there with his tea. They both listened to the sound of the rain and to the rocking of the hull.

It was Colin who spoke. Do you still fish?

A little, Ian said.

How come not a lot?

Not as much fun as it used to be.

Because of your son? Colin asked.

Ian clenched his cup. Aye, because of Michael.

What did you fish for?

Herring and cod. I have the crab cages out now. Maybe I scrape the bottom for some mussels as well. I don’t need a lot.

That doesn’t sound so hard.

And what do you know about fishin’ that makes it sound easy? Ian put his elbows on the table. Catchin’ you was a lot easier than catchin’ fish.

Colin smiled a little. Maybe you could teach me sometime.

I’m not doin’ nothin’ till you tell me what you’re doin’ here. What you’re really doin’ here.

The boy’s face fell. He swirled his tea in his hands. Ian stared at the black eye.

I was hiding, he finally said.

From who? From me, or your dad?

Colin froze. The edges of his mouth quivered. That told Ian enough, and he dropped it for the boy’s sake. He took their cups to the sink.

You see the plaque in the hold, there? The one you were in? That was my son’s first catch. Just a wee little cod, but he was proud of himself, and I was proud of him. It took him a lot of work to catch that fish. It’s not as easy as you’re thinkin’.

I’m tough. I bet I can learn easy. I bet I catch a bunch of fish, right now.

Ian motioned for Colin to follow him, out on deck. Then you’re stupid, and a liar. No man risks his life goin’ out in this kind of storm. That’s a better than good way to get yourself killed.

Is that how your son died?

Ian frowned and looked out across the water. Yes, it was.

What happened?

I was stupid, is what. He thought he could handle a little rain. Never should have let him go out like that.

He looked at Colin. Why in the hell am I tellin’ you this? You’re just some stowaway brat. Who are you?

Maybe you just wanted to. Do you feel any better?

I don’t know. Ian sighed. Your mom know you’re out here? he asked.

Colin shook his head.

Than we best get you home, before the whole town think’s me some kidnapper. I’m won’t have none of that on my conscience.

Colin dropped his head, nodding sadly.

But if you maybe tell your mom the next time you’ll be doin’ some sneakin’ out, I can take you out on this here boat, and we’ll find something to catch. Might even have to find a plaque to mount it, same as Michael. Deal?

Deal, Colin said. When he smiled, Ian felt a little of the cold and rain lift from his body. He could hear the monks’ and their singing.

Colin’s parents and several others in the town were looking for them when they came back, docking the boat by the dune road. They had flashlights and worried expressions. Colin ran sheepishly to his mother’s side, and his father scolded him, waggling an empty bottle in his face. Ian frowned, looking at the black eye. They left him, then, without another word.

In the quiet, he heard the monks again. He felt elated. He could see the stone walls and the sparrows nesting in the rafters, and he saw Father Partridge’s hands, smelling the beeswax. He thought that he wanted to hear the monks again. He thought that maybe Colin would as well.

Ian pulled the gun and Michael’s photo from his coat. He looked at them, holding both in his hands.

Take care of yourself, the abbot had said.

Ian held the picture close, and tossed the gun into the sea. It barely made a splash.

I just might, he said.

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