HiLobrow is proud to present the twenty-eighth installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.
After correcting tests, I left my classroom at 3:30 p.m. to return home to shower and dress for our farewell dinner for Eileen Thompson. She would soon be off to Florida and a new life at the end of the week; for our goodbye, Iris and I had invited her to dinner at the Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge.
I secured my papers in my desk, locked the classroom door and proceeded to the first floor corridor. Near the office, I heard their voices, unmistakably Ed and Farrell’s. Annoyed because I had warned Ed never to meet with Farrell alone, I was inclined to go directly to my car, but their exchange sounded angry.
I passed through the main office to the small, narrow corridor connecting the office with the headmaster’s suite where I could overhear everything.
“His uncorrected transcript was sent out,” Ed said, outraged. “He hasn’t a chance of early decision with a registered failure in English.”
“How do you know they received an uncorrected transcript?” Farrell asked, sounding bored.
“I called Dartmouth.”
“I gave the Registrar permission to change O’Donnell’s grade,” Farrell said. “But their office is busy at this time of year, and such mistakes are easily rectified.”
“It wasn’t a mistake, it was done deliberately to ruin Timothy’s future.”
“A serious charge, young man.”
“You did it.”
“You should be helping Tim, not sabotaging him.”
“I’ve heard enough, now get your ass out of here before I lose my temper.”
“I want Tim’s corrected transcript along with a letter praising Tim’s sterling academic and personal qualifications. I want them tomorrow, and if I don’t get them, I’ll contact the Boston Globe.
“Clever little bastard, aren’t you?”
“The corrected transcript and the letter tomorrow morning, or I’ll call the Globe.”
“The Globe’s editor’s a Classical grad.”
“I don’t want to engage in a power struggle with you.”
“Don’t make me laugh, you haven’t a smidgen of power.”
“The Globe’s Mike Perry would be very interested in a story about a gifted Classical senior not admitted into a name school because of a deliberate, unwarranted failing grade.”
“The transcript and letter tomorrow, and I’ll personally drive to New Hampshire to deliver them.”
“They put you up to this, didn’t they?” Farrell said.
“That crowd from Room B. As for you, you’re finished here.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Horgan, before you go—”
Farrell’s voice suddenly sounded intimate.
“What’s in this for you?”
“You’re gay, aren’t you?”
“You’re sick and need help.”
“You’re salivating for O’Donnell. Or have you had him already?”
“Mr. Farrell, take a leave of absence and get help.”
As Ed exited into the corridor, he saw me. He was pale and trembling.
“Yes. Are you OK?”
“I’m all right.”
“He made some sick accusations.”
“To be expected from a diseased soul. He must be removed.”
“Easier said than done.”
“He’s to be pitied.”
He wiped his brow with a handkerchief as we walked out into the parking lot.
“Few would’ve stood up to Farrell like that.”
Ed looked at me, clueless about his courage.
“I’ve never been so frightened,” Ed said.
Ed focused his eyes on me.
“Nothing said in that room was unfamiliar to me.”
“If it was familiar, what frightened you?”
He looked up at the sky.
“Looks like rain,” he said quietly. “See you tomorrow. You’ll accompany me in the morning?”
“I would’ve accompanied you today, if you’d asked me.”
“Didn’t think it was fair to you. You’ve already done so much, but I’ll need you and the union before this is all over.”
“Let’s have a drink at the Shamrock,” I said, feeling as if I had somehow failed him.
“You’re as white as a ghost,” I said, “and could use a drink.”
He smiled and then nodded.
The Shamrock bar was empty, and we sat at a table near a window. Outside it was darkening. The waitress took our order for pints of Guinness.
“Let’s not talk about school,” Ed said.
“Fine with me.”
The waitress returned with our beers.
“Which monastic order did you belong to?” I asked, like Iris, caving into my curiosity about his being a monk.
“Cistercian, but it’s also known as Trappist. I spent some of my happiest and saddest days there as a monk.” He looked wistful.
“Tell me about it.”
He had attended a Jesuit high school, and his senior English teacher had assigned Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for a book report. He put it off until the last moment, not interested in monks or abbeys about which he knew next to nothing. When he began to read the book, however, he became riveted by Merton’s gripping story of his search for God.
Ed had been a devout Catholic boy, devoting a lot of his free time to the church choir and serving Mass as an acolyte. As a high school sophomore, he flirted with the idea of becoming a priest but dismissed it as simply that, a flirtation. Then arrived Merton’s book with the promise that one could experience God in this life through contemplation.
He had not known what contemplation meant and explored Christian and Buddhist books, finding himself meditating, believing it would lead him into a deeper inner life. He also studied Christian mystics like the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross — as well as mystical poets like T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.
The possibility of experiencing union with God led him to the monastery where his uncle was abbot. After a week retreat, he decided it was the life he was meant for.
Although his uncle was doubtful about Ed’s having a vocation, he was accepted as a postulant and optimistically began his new life. He looked forward to the chanting of the psalms five times a day and chopping wood, herding the cows, and gathering hay. It was a simple life close to nature and to God, and he was entranced by it.
The monks were kind, holy people, and he bonded with them, feeling as if he had become part of a family, one he would be part of until his death. But in the second year of his monastic training, life became more difficult. He had been warned that there would be tough days, but he never thought he would ever be lonely living among ninety men.
He particularly missed human touch and wondered if he could live a lifetime without it. He shared his problem with his confessor, Father Ian Grady.
Grady was the charismatic young Prior of the community with whom Ed felt totally at ease. He counseled Ed not to surrender to depression, advising him to keep busy with work and prayer. He said. “Learn to listen to silence; it’s God’s voice and you’ll get through this dark time.”
Grady’s paradoxical counsel confused Ed; it sounded more like a Zen koan that had to be solved. Every week he returned to Father Grady, and every week he was again told to listen to the silence. He began to feel close to Father Grady, looking forward to his weekly meeting.
“One day I grabbed Father’s hand and tightly held onto it.” Ed said. “Father sat there and said nothing. He didn’t pull his hand away, and I held onto it for a long time.”
“He say anything?” I asked.
“He just looked at me, smiled, and that was it. He never referred to it and neither did I.”
“Do you know why you grabbed his hand?”
“I was touch-starved.”
Ed gazed out the window with a far away look in his eyes.
“Do you think you had a vocation?”
He turned to me, “Yes, but I couldn’t live a lifetime without touch.”
“Don’t they say God never tests you beyond your strength?”
After a gulp of beer, Ed said, “Maybe I just panicked. I discussed everything with my uncle. He thought it best that I leave the abbey. Which stunned me because I loved the abbey and the monks, and I loved the beauty of their simple life of work and prayer, but uncle was adamant. So shortly afterwards my dad picked me up, and as we drove away, I wept.”
When Ed’s eyes welled with tears, I chastised myself, as I had Iris, for asking too many personal questions. But I also intuited that Ed wanted to share this side of his life.
“You regret leaving?”
“I did until I met Ronny,” he said, smiling. “I love her very much. God works in mysterious ways because if I hadn’t been a monk, I never would’ve met Ronny.”
“She’s Father Grady’s sister. When she came to Boston, she knew no one, but her brother had told her about me.”
Ed ordered another round of drinks, “I believe in divine plan though I’m completely confused about why I’m teaching at Classical.”
“Maybe to help Tim.”
“Could be, or something else.”
“Something to do with Farrell?”
“Perhaps you’re involved in his—”
“Redemption?” Ed chuckled, “Maybe we’ve had too much Guinness.”
Ed’s goodness surely brought out the best in people, but it could also bring out the worst in them. What would Farrell do next?
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”