This story is by ROBERT MCNEILL and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
He’d been on the island twenty six days. He didn’t belong anywhere else. Returning to his home after Vietnam had been a disaster. There was no place in the “World” for him. He was resigned to this solitary life. He believed everyone was better off this way. Being around civilians made him uneasy. He felt their eyes on him, certain they could see into him somehow and know the things he’d done.
This morning, as with every morning, he awoke in panic with a cry lying in a pool of sweat. He hated sleep but knew he had to. He hated the dream and the foul taste of it in his mouth.
He built a small camp in the forest of the Island of Kona. Survival was not a problem. He was an expert Living under a dense forest canopy was familiar. The smell of rot and mold didn’t bother him and neither did the rain. He could think here; get his head straight. As a boy he’d wanted to be an artist but that was in another life and impossible now. He felt no sense of peace, his mind too restless for that. Feeling safe would have to do. He was nineteen and not tall.
Two years before in 1969 John MacNary was a green Marine newly arrived in Vietnam. John was assigned to a Recon Battalion in the First Marine Division. They needed fresh meat, under five feet eight and unmarried. The company Gunnery Sargent, Gunny Hunter, a hardened veteran of twenty five years, gave him a nickname on his fifth patrol. After an explosion, his platoon pulled him unconscious out of a collapsed Vietcong tunnel still holding his bloody hunting knife.
Gunny Hunter crushed out his cigarette on the sole of his boot. Looking down at MacNary he said “Glad you’re still with us kid. You know the song Mack the Knife? That’s your handle from now on”. The name stuck. Nicknames only count if someone else gives them to you.
Day twenty seven on the island. It rained. It poured all night making muddy rivers down the mountain side. Near dawn and sleeping without dreaming, he heard a voice. A man’s voice. “John…John wake up”.Mac sat up startled.
“Who is that?” He didn’t believe anyone could have found him. He wiped his eyes and focused on the dark. No one was there.
“Get up. Get on your feet Marine! Listen. You must go to San Damiano”.
“What the Fuck! Who are you?” Mac strained to hear. No answer. Only the rain. He searched the camp in the early dawn but found no tracks. He felt fear gnawing at his guts and trembled but it wasn’t cold. He didn’t believe in ghosts or any of that spirit world shit. Sure. I’ve got issues he thought, but this was beyond crazy. And that was no Goddamn hallucination. I can’t let this rest. I’ve got to know what that was about. Mac packed his gear and marched to Hilo Airport and caught a flight to San Francisco.
San Damiano is a Franciscan Monastery forty miles east of San Francisco. The monastery was built in the style of the old California Missions and sat on five hundred acres of oak trees extending up the side of a mountain. There were six buildings surrounding a garden courtyard with a fountain.
A yellow taxi pulled to a noisy stop in the circular turnaround at the entrance. It was mid morning when Mac paid the driver his last twenty and climbed out of the cab. On his right the massive oak doors opened and an elderly tall white haired man dressed in a brown monks robe walked toward him smiling. Taking Macs hand he shook it up and down and said. “You must be John. Is it you?. I had this dream that told me you were coming to us”. Looking at each other was a moment of mutual recognition. “I’m Father David. Come inside, please. I have so many things to tell you “ Without a second thought Mac knew he was home.
Becoming a monk is a lengthy process. Seven years in residence are required after a candidate takes initial vows. He can leave at any time before he takes final vows. Father David said “ As Franciscans we follow The Rule of Saint Francis. The rule of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.”
Mac thought that sounded simple enough. In Marine speak that meant you own nothing, no pussy, and do what you’re told. Nothing new here he thought. He quickly learned those vows mean a great deal more. The Catholic Church and the Marine Corps have one thing in common. Both are fond of Obedience.
Father David was an imposing figure. Heavy boned but lean from fasting more than required. His voice was powerful and his booming laugh filled the room. Grey eyes, a roman nose with heavy cheek bones and a strong jaw with a dimple on his chin. Father David ran his monastery with a firm hand. Patience was difficult for him and he could not suffer a fool.
Father David enjoyed walking the grounds at night after Compline. Mac often joined him. One night two weeks after his arrival Father David said “Tell me about your war Son”.
“How do you know about that?” Mac asked. “It’s obvious” was the reply. With those few words Mac was torn open. He told his story. The dam broke inside him. He wailed it out, moaning like a wounded animal. All of the ugliness, the deaths, the fear and guilt. All of the horror he had known.
“I’m a monster. I’m a Goddamned monster” and he wept pounding the ground. It was an exorcism. Father David knelt at his side and made the sign of the cross.
“There it is” he said “Walk with me”. The good priest paused and said “I want you to paint our chapel wall, behind the High Altar. I want it to honor Saint Francis. He was a soldier once” Mac nodded in silence. Father David turned to face him. “Will you join our community and take Holy Orders?” Looking up at the stars Mac said “Yes Father”. He felt warm.
Two days later the ceremony was held. The community of three priests and eight brothers all witnessed the event. With his head freshly shaved Mac spoke his vows and put on the robe of Saint Francis. Father David spoke. John your old life has passed away and begun anew. Rise Brother Michael”.
Brother Michael sat staring at the huge chapel wall. How do I honor Saint Francis? The wall was bare except for a large painted crucifix in the center. An exact replica of the miraculous cross that spoke to Saint Francis, setting him on a path that lead to the creation of the Franciscan order. “Supernatural voices” Mac said to the cross. I have some experience with that he thought.
What was the world Francis knew? An idea began to form. The
religious art of thirteenth century Italy was based on Byzantine iconography.
“I want to make your chapel a place where Saint Francis would have liked to pray. A place he would recognize.”
“Good. Oh, very good.” Father David clapped his hands like a delighted child. “Let’s get to work.”
Brother Pierre was a mincing sort of man. As book keeper of the community he made sure nothing happened he didn’t know about. He was proud of his attention to detail. Speaking with Brother Maurice after Vespers he said “Have you seen the designs for the chapel? Yes? Well, they smack of vanity to me.”
“No one says no to Father David”. The monks retired to their rooms. Brother Pierre spoke often with the other monks. None of them liked David’s plans for the chapel.
The design for the chapel required six large panels surrounding the crucifix. Mac had no formal training in art but it came to him effortlessly. His hand and mind connected and the paint obeyed as if by magic. Color and form are related,much like music and this was his first symphony. At night Mac prayed “ Fill me with light Lord,guide me”. He was a man possessed by beauty.
The bond between Father David and Mac flowered during the two years of relentless work it took to complete. The dreams came less frequently. Mac had been transformed by this new life and he was happy. This was closely noticed by his brother monks.
A ceremony was held to celebrate the newly decorated chapel. The public was invited, food and wine were served. It was a great success. Father David happily answered questions about the design and content of the paintings and how it all related to Saint Francis. There was much laughter, even Brother Pierre smiled. Mac did not attend. Crowds still made him nervous.
Father Damian approached Father David. “Father we are all pleased with new chapel but feel we may have overworked poor Brother Michael. Do you think it would be a good idea to send him on retreat to rest and regain his vocation?”
“I think you need to rest a bit Son. I know a small Trappist retreat in the wine country. It’s just for a week. The good priest paused. “When you return we’ll talk about Rome.” Father David smiled. “Didn’t I tell you I had plans?”
Brother Michael returned to San Damiano refreshed and ready to work. Father David was absent from the evening meal. Speaking was not allowed in the dining room. It took an eternity to end. Catching up with Father Damian afterwards.
“Where is Father David? Is he ill?”
“No. Our good Father David has retired. To Santa Barbara I believe.” Mac was dumbstruck. What’s happened? He wondered. Damian continued “We, the community want to meet with you tomorrow after Mass.”
Mac went to the chapel. He sat there for hours. The faces of painted angels, saints and even Christ watched him. Why had Father David left? He loved this place.
He had his answer after Mass. It was an Inquisition Brother
Pierre spoke first “ We believe you do not understand your role as a monk. This has all been vanity. Pride. The fantasy of a senile old man who suffered visions of grandeur beyond his place. There is no humility in this. Pride is a mortal sin.” Each of the Brothers had their say. Father Damian. The new Director, said it best “You were the instrument of Davids’ sin, and you must atone for it. It is through Obedience that we are proved worthy.” The room felt hot. “You must decide Brother Michael. You have seven days”.
Mac stalked the hills at night. He was worried about his friend and confessor. He had taken solemn vows and the community was justified in demanding strict obedience to the Rule. He thought they must have forced him out. It would have been quite a fight.
Mac found a letter under his mattress. Father David wrote.
They have made an end of me Son. Remember your vows, but do not forget who gave you the gifts you possess. I know you will make the right choice. Walk with God. Farewell. David.
He had worked two years in a fever of glorious color and form. It was true prayer. His true vocation. Christ taught that a man cannot serve two masters without loving one and hating the other. Walking down the mountain Mac paused and kissed the hand on the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. He knew what to do now and was not afraid.