Gail Godwin

Book Excerpt

Good HusbandThe Good Husband
A Novel

Published 1994


Windows were washed by the seminarians twice a year at Regina Seminary. In October and in May. Francis was up on the stepladder, squares of old newspaper (neatly cut by the brothers in the kitchen) stowed in the pockets of his pea jacket, a bucket of warm vinegar water (at least it had been warm when it left the building) slung over his left forearm. The metal handle of the heavy bucket bit into his flesh through the wool sleeve. The cold wind coming off the lake chilled his fingers and whipped the skirts of his cassock against his jeans. But he was happy. During last year's novitiate up at North Lake House, his third year at Regina, the year set aside for discernment, discipline, and study of the rule, which the order liked to compare to the military experience, there had been some unhappy times. Having survived them, he felt practically on vacation back at Regina's main campus, where the beds were real beds and not army cots, the radiators worked, and someone wasn't trying to break your will from morning until night. Being back at Regina was like being a young man at college again. The only difference being that, unlike most college students of twenty-one, he already had taken his first vows toward living a certain way for the rest of his life. One of the more joyful benefits of the rigorous, humiliating novitiate year was that he was beginning to understand through his senses as well as by means of his indoctrinated will that a moment fully lived in service was a moment lived in God's time. So he was at the moment as happy as he had ever been, balanced on the stepladder under the cold blue sky, washing the fanlight beneath the round arch over the seminary's front door.

Composed of seven slender isosceles triangles of different-colored glass between radiating glazing bars, the fanlight was the only out-of-character adornment on this massive Romanesque pile of stone which had been built as a merchandising baron's country house in the late 1870s by H. H. Richardson himself. It was the opinion of Father Birkenshaw, the rector, who had studied to be an architect before joining the order, that this fanlight, suitable for the "lighter and more feminine" Georgian and Regency styles, had been a bitter concession to his client by the masterful Richardson, whose trademark was the strong, frill-free, rock-faced building.

"Depend upon it, a carved stone tympanum had been designed by Richardson to go under that arch," Father Birkenshaw never lost the opportunity to inform visitors. His brusque voice, rock-faced and frill free itself, seemed to cast some part of the blame for the frivolous fanlight on them.

The rector was just now approaching, on the gravel path leading from the guest lodge, with a large woman whom Francis at first assumed was a nun. She was all in black, from her voluminous wool cape, which swayed energetically about her calves, down to her stockings and shoes. She was tall, as tall as the rector himself, but she walked with her head lowered in a manner Francis first mistook for "custody of the eyes." The heels on her shoes were too high and spiky for a nun's, and her coiled and burnished hair too elaborately arranged, but everybody knew that nuns were in the process of drastically changing their image. Could it be their nun who'd just come back from the mission in Taiwan, the one who was booked to speak at one of Father Floris's future cultural forums?

"That fanlight, in my opinion, was a bitter concession," Father Birkenshaw, stepping along briskly in his well-fitting cassock, was saying to the visitor, who matched her strides to his as they approached Francis on the stepladder. She was carrying a bulky black briefcase, and as she raised her face to view the bitter concession, Francis saw that she was trying to keep an insolent smile within bounds. Not the nun, he decided.

"We haven't been able to locate the Richardson drawings for this place," continued Father Birkenshaw, "but depend upon it, a carved stone tympanum was designed to go under that arch."

The two of them had paused below the stepladder. Francis stopped wiping the glass and shifted his body to one side so that they could have an unobstructed look at the fanlight.

After a moment, during which Francis felt that he as well as the fanlight underwent scrutiny by the visitor, she asked Father Birkenshaw: "Is it the window itself you object to, or the colors?," She had a rich, low voice, with a touch of mockery in it that matched the smile she hadn't succeeded in repressing.

"It's not a matter of my objecting," responded the rector testily. "It's just not architecturally consistent. That's my point."

"Oh, if consistency's your point . . . " conceded the woman at once. She smiled collusively up at Francis, and her dark bright eyes seemed effortlessly to read his guilty heart. For, though the director had succeeded in intimidating the seminarians into believing that the fanlight was the one tasteless blight on their classic building, Francis clung to his secret pleasure in it. The colors reminded him of the ones in the LifeSaver packets of his childhood. In good taste or not, the fanlight, made the old gray fortress sing for him.

She was, it turned out, the vision-lady Father Floris had invited to his cultural forum in exchange for Northern Michigan having his nun to theirs. M. Danvers was the name listed on her book, a study of the sources of creativity in certain famous prophetic artists, which had the provocative title The Book of Hell.

At dinner in the refectory, she sat at the head table between Father Birkenshaw and Father Floris. During a seminarian's reading, a meditation on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, "God does not change his mind about whom he chooses and blesses," she kept her head lowered demurely as she ate, so that it was impossible to see her expression. In honor of the visitor, there was dessert, baked apple, although it was a weekday. But the brother in the kitchen who was replacing their regular cook, who'd had a death in the family, had seasoned it oddly. After the first spoonful,Francis wordlessly offered his to a classmate who was always hungry and didn't appear to mind the peculiar taste.

That evening at the forum, Father Floris introduced their speaker as "Miss Magda Danvers, who, in the tradition of other celebrated ladies of the pen, chooses to remain genderless on her book jacket." The old priest's head waggled gaily as he provided this note of interest to the students, but Miss Danvers, waiting on the sidelines in an armchair, shot him an impatient look.

Though the lectern stood ready with its lamp switched on, she never so much as approached it. Instead she started stalking up and down the carpeted lounge. She carried not a single paper or notecard, delivering herself in a steady, confident, frequently amused tone. Once in a while she would slow down for a ruminative aside, or come to a full halt to scowl out of the window into the darkness, as if challenging the night to provide her with her next line. When pivoting around on one of her high spike heels for the return march, she would occasionally fix some member of the community with her insolent dark eyes. She still was all in black: sweater, skirt, stockings, shoes. He wondered if she had done it out of deference to the black cassocks worn by the teachers and professed novices. But the sweater did not hide the curves of her figure, and she did not give the impression of being a person who did much out of deference.

"Yes, Blake was thirty-three, that symbolic age. The very same age as a certain other troublesome person you may have heard of, when he was at the climax of his ministry to unsettle and remake the world. William Blake was thirty-three year's old when he sat down to engrave the text and pictures for his highly subversive gospel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell."

She was not the first woman speaker at the cultural forum. They'd had a black woman poet who wore a turban and native African dress and had sung and chanted in dialects, and they'd had a president of a woman's college who was also a renowned medievalist.

"Roughly the first half of Blake's life -- he lived until the age of seventy and died singing -- was turned outward toward the world he lived in. He was obsessed by the French Revolution and its implications -- just as many of you I are no doubt obsessed by the Vietnam War and its implications. However, I don't intend to draw any parallels between the French Revolution and Vietnam tonight.

"But now, at thirty-three, Blake had reached a point of despair. His concern for countries struggling against tyranny, his sympathy for the working people in his own England being sucked under by the machine age . . . these outer concerns paralleled a growing inner rage for liberation that was growing in him. You see, his personal life also had become a tyranny to him."

A loud belch exploded from the classmate who had inherited Francis's strangely seasoned baked apple. Several freshmen tittered; Father Birkenshaw turned them to stone with a look.

"What was going on in his personal life? you may well ask. I'm going to tell you. I must tell you, because I know that your order subscribes, as do the Jesuits to the 'wise as serpents' policy of engaging with this world. You aren't afraid of hearing a few home truths about the multifarious ways the human psyche creates art, or you wouldn't have invited me here."

She spun on a spike heel and inclined her gleaming head toward Father Floris, who responded with a courtly nod.

"Therefore you will understand that art isn't made in a vacuum, any more than the vocations of each of you were. Those of you who really have vocations. What we feel compelled to do, whether it's making art or giving your life to God -- I personally don't think there's any difference between the two -- evolves out of the inner fabric of our lives, however disguised the patterns may be to us. The work, the vocation, is an attempt on the part of the would-be artist, or the would-be religious, to fulfill in an inner way, in a symbolic way what the outer world is failing to provide him with in the service of wholeness.

"So. Now are we ready to take a peek into Blake's domestic life?" Magda Danvers shot a challenging glance toward Father Birkenshaw, presiding in his wing chair.

"Blake was devoted to his wife Catherine, but she was a simple woman. She was his mate, but she was not his match. There's a big difference between the two. Mates are not always matches, and matches are not always mates. Many people in this world are mated to people who are not their match, just as, conversely, people who may be matches for each other should never have gotten together as mates. But regarding the first category, the mates who aren't matched, sometimes this can be a very happy arrangement, even though there are whole realms of mental existence to which the simpler mate cannot accompany the partner. The Mental Traveller must travel alone to these realms."

Francis thought of his parents, who would certainly fit in the first category. Neither his mother nor his father had gone beyond high school, yet his mother was an avid reader and liked to listen to the opera upstairs in the bedroom on Saturday afternoon while his father preferred his ballgames on TV with a few beers. Yet his mother had deferred to his father in all things, and they had been like sweethearts. Francis's older sister Jeannine once told him that if an ectopic pregnancy after Francis's birth hadn't resulted in their mother's having to have her tubes tied, they would have been a family of ten or more, because their parents couldn't keep their hands off each other until the day of their father's death. He'd had a coronary at fifty-one while operating his forklift at the cement factory. Francis had been a junior in high school. His mother still hadn't recovered from the loss. The only thing she had left to live for, she had confided to Francis before he left for the seminary, was the day she would attend his ordination into the priesthood.

"After Catherine found out she couldn't have children," Magda Danvers was saying, "she stopped having physical relations with Mr. Blake." Here she paused, as though deliberately to amplify the intake of seminarians' breaths.

"She didn't feel it was right," she continued smoothly, one hand reaching up to check on her elaborately coiled bright hair. "The sexual act by itself was wrong, Catherine Blake told her husband, if you couldn't bring children into the world."

Old Father Rolf, who taught moral philosophy and theory of sacraments, nodded drowsily in agreement, from his armchair.

"Blake gave in, though he did ask his wife to let a girl live with them as Blake's concubine. But when Catherine put her foot down, he resigned himself, though he was still a man young enough to deserve the full experience of his sexuality."

Father Birkenshaw's high-boned face was a rock wall of cold courtesy.

"But Blake made the best of it. He taught Catherine to read and write and showed her how to color his engravings. He remained a devoted husband. The point is that Blake's longed-for experience of the feminine -- the feminine that was literally denied him -- forced him down into the regions of his unconscious, where he confronted the images he found, all of them male and female aspects of his warring selves, and made art out of them.

"But Blake was not a great prophetic artist just because he managed to solve his personal problems through art. Prophetic artists don't stop at the personal. What they do, you see, is solve something for everybody by making universally compelling images of their conflicts.

"Which brings us to Dante and Beatrice." Magda Danvers pronounced it Bee-a-tree-chay. "Now, you're going to love this story. Being about unrequited love, it's more suitable for seminarians. When Dante was out walking, he saw a little Florentine girl in a crimson dress and fell in love for life. They were both nine years old. He didn't lay eyes on her again until they were both eighteen. She spoke a courteous greeting to him in passing and that was it. She died at twenty-five. But this blazing visitation of love set fire to his poetic spirit. For him Beatrice was the Incarnation. Sometimes, suddenly loving someone can be like a flash of God . . . ."

Francis saw Father Floris cast a nervous look toward Father Birkenshaw, who remained rigid as rock, a cold, polite smile etched on his countenance. Old Father Rolf had dozed off in his armchair.

The seminarian scheduled to drive Magda Danvers to catch her early-morning flight came down with intestinal troubles during the night and Francis was wakened at 5:00 A.M. by Father Floris, who brought him a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee and a hard roll and informed him the job was his. "Not quite what we expected," the priest said gloomily of last night's speaker, "but we're still honor-bound to Northern Michigan to get her out of here. Poor Philip, his guts are in a complete uproar. I experienced distress myself during the night, and so, apparently, did others. The rector says that fool Brother Claude used liberal amounts of cumin in the baked apple instead of cinnamon. How about you, my boy? Feeling okay?"

Somewhat guiltily, Francis admitted he felt fine. Philip was the classmate to whom he'd given his baked apple.

"But I thought parts of her talk were extremely interesting," Francis said.

"Oh, you did, did you?" The habitually amiable Father Floris snapped up Francis's window shade rather violently and stood gazing out at the square of darkness, his hands clasped behind his broad black back. "Her plane goes at seven-ten. Be sure and get her there in plenty of time."

The speaker was waiting outside the guest lodge in her black cape, her bags and briefcase beside her on the sidewalk, when Francis pulled round in the station wagon. As the wan yellow of his headlights sprang upon her, she looked startled and defenseless and oddly disheveled. He hurried out to help her with her things, introducing himself. She did not appear to recognize him from yesterday, when' she had passed beneath his stepladder.

"Weren't you cold, waiting outside?" he asked her when they were inside the station wagon.

"I welcomed the cold air," she replied in a low, exhausted voice. "Let's put it this way: my night was not exactly restful."

"You must have eaten the apple," he said, angling the wagon between the stone pillars and out onto the main road.

"Was that a theological remark, Francis?"

"Excuse me?" He turned to meet her eyes, glowing at him in the dim light of the wagon. She was smiling the same smile he had seen her trying to repress yesterday with Father Birkenshaw. The reason for her disheveled look, he realized, was that she hadn't put her hair up. Lying thick and loose around her shoulders, it made her look younger and more vulnerable. It came to him that she had thought he meant like Eve eating the apple of knowledge.

"No, I meant the baked apple at dinner. The brother who's substituting in the kitchen put in too much cumin."

"Cumin? Cumin doesn't belong in a baked apple. Even I know that and I'm certainly no cook."

"He mistook it for the cinnamon. He used a lot of it. Father Floris said many people had, well, difficulties last night."

She snorted. "I'll bet they did. Cumin is an emetic, isn't it? My mother would know. She's the world expert on bowel lore."

Francis couldn't think of any reply to this, so concentrated on the road ahead. Wraiths of mist from the lake floated up at his wind of the darkness.

"So that probably accounts for why I was up most of the night. I thought it was nerves. There was a good deal of resistance in my audience last night. I suppose I should have tempered my remarks more to the seminary setting, but they told me you were a progressive bunch, like the Jesuits, so I spoke the way I did at Northern Michigan. Though I never give the same lecture twice. Couldn't if I tried. Something new is always popping up."

"I liked your talk. You said some interesting things."

"Such as?"

He had expected her to thank him, not cross-examine him. "What you said about, well, vocation, for one thing."

"What did I say?"

Didn't she remember, or was she testing him?

"That it's a way to try to provide ourselves with some wholeness that the outside world isn't . . . I can't recall your exact words, but it made me stop to think.

"Was that good? Or not so good? " Again he felt her dark eyes burning at him from the dim interior of the wagon. Outside, the sky was beginning to lighten.

"Well, I suppose good. I mean there's such a lot I still don't know.

"Pardon my impertinence, Francis, but you're not in those skirts just to avoid the draft, are you?"

"To qualify for a Four-D? Absolutely not. I've wanted to be a priest ever since I was a boy."

She laughed. "But you're not much more than a boy now."

"I just turned twenty-one."

"You could have fooled me." A rough-and-tumble teasing had come into her tone that made him think of Jeannine, the older sister he got on with best. "What does the 'D' stand for?"

"In Four-D? Divinity."

"Ah. I should have figured that out. Have you ever had an experience of divinity, Francis?"

"Well, right now I'm still in the process of trying to give up my will so there'll be room for God to reveal himself."

"And how does one go about giving up one's will?"

"A lot of it's in the discipline. They have these ancient methods for breaking your will." Why had he said, "they"? Hadn't he just taken his first vows to become one of them?

"Such as?"

He took a deep breath. Once she started on you, she wouldn't let you off the hook. "Well, for example, when I was doing my novitiate up at North Lake House this past year . . ."

He was surprised at his ready flow of grievances. As if she'd only needed to press a button for them to come tumbling out.

". . . and then, well, there was this evening last spring. I was on dishwashing detail; you see, much of the novitiate is modeled after boot camp in the army. The novicemaster came up behind me at the sink and said I was slopping water on my cassock. He told me if I got any more water on it, I'd have to go and change before compline. I apologized and said I'd be more careful, but I guess he didn't like something in my tone, because he ordered me to kneel down and ask his forgiveness. There was a big puddle of dishwater on the floor, right where he was pointing for me to kneel, but I knew I didn't have a choice. I knelt down in the dishwater and asked his forgiveness. When I stood up again, he said, 'Your cassock is a disgrace; Francis. It has soapy water all over the knees. I'd better not see you in it at compline.' Then he looked at his watch and said compline was in seven minutes. There was no way I could finish the dishes and run up to my room, which was two floors up, on the far side of the building, and change my cassock and get back to chapel on time. And he knew it. He knew perfectly well it was a no-win situation."

"So what did you do?"

"One of the brothers smuggled me a soiled cassock from the laundry basket. It smelled terrible and was miles too big for me, but it was dry. When I got to the chapel, the novicemaster was waiting just outside in the corridor and he looked at the huge, smelly cassock and said 'Surely you have the wings of an angel, Francis, if you managed to fly upstairs and change your cassock. That is your cassock, isn't it?' And I looked him in the eye and said, 'Yes, Father.' He knew I was lying, but he let me go in to compline."

"Why was that? I wonder?" She seemed really interested.

"Because he knew I'd have to confess it at Faults the next morning, and he could reprove me then. Meanwhile I'd have to pass, the night knowing I lied, which was a punishment to my pride."

"If you ask me, I think boot camp would be a breeze, compared to your novitiate," she said after a minute.

Francis suddenly felt ashamed of his outpourings and the sympathy they had elicited. "But it's all part of the discipline," he hastened to defend the novicemaster. "Having, to see myself as a cowardly liar was a lesson in humility. One of my worst faults, they taught me in the novitiate was being proud of myself for being virtuous. My discipline with the cassock was, in a way, tailor-made for my particular fault."

"Wow, talk about casuistry! You're a budding Jesuit, Francis. Discipline is one thing, I'm a firm believer in discipline myself, it's got me where I am -- though I'm not quire sure where that is, anymore. But egregious sadism . . . " She paused, grunted, then exhaled in resignation. She had obviously thought better of finishing what she had been about to say. "I've never had so much as a hello or how-do-you-do from the divine spark, myself," she went on, in a lighter vein. "But I'm fascinated by people who have. They're my specialty, as you may have gathered last night. I like to try and figure out what it was about their personalities and circumstances that made them . . . susceptible, you might say. I wonder if you will be one of the susceptible ones."

"I doubt it. I'm not in it for any big visions."

"What are you in it for?"

He was relieved to see the left-turn sign for the airport road. "Well, because . . . it suits me to serve other people's needs."

"Now that's an amazing statement for someone your age to make." She leaned over to peer at him more closely. "Hey, you're the pretty one with the pink cheeks on the ladder yesterday. When old Birkenshaw, or whatever his name is, was excoriating that Jezebel fanlight on your gloomy pile. You ad 'mire him, I suppose."

"Father Birkenshaw.He's our rector."

"I see." She laughed. "That was like my asking a buck private if he admires the general. Oh, but there was another thing I wanted to, ask you: What about your own needs? Who's going to serve them, while your off serving everybody else's?

"I'm hoping God will," he said.

He was surprised at how this shut her up. He drove the remainder of the airport road in silence. Only when they were in sight of the airfield and small terminal did she groan, "I am exhausted, completely done in. Will I ever be glad to get home, or at least the purgatory that passes for home just now."

"Where is that?" he asked politely.

"University of Chicago. Drop by and see me if you're ever in downtown Chicago. I have an adjunct lectureship in the English Department there. Abject lectureship is more like it. They get to pay me slave wages and treat me like the typical leprous ABD. That means 'All But Dissertation.' See? You have your Four-D, and I have my ABD. We each labor behind our acronyms. Mine's a punishment for going against my professors and publishing my book to notorious acclaim before they approved it. So now they're making me write it over to their old-fogey specifications."

"But how can they make you write it over when it's already published?

She reached across and took hold of his arm. "The same way your novicernaster can make you kneel down in a puddle of dirty water and cover your clean young body with some fat old cleric's smelly robe, and then go against yourself and lie about it. Because they've got the power, and they want to make damn sure they keep their power."

He carried her bag into the terminal, where half a dozen or so sleepy people stood in line at the check-in counter. "Give me your ticket, and I'll check you through."

That's gallant of you, Francis, but it's really not necessary. I'm used to doing these things for myself."

"Well, I'm here to do it for you this morning, so you might as well sit down. You said you were exhausted."

She gave him a searching look as they confronted each other face-to-face. She was as tall as he. Okay, Friar Francis, I give in," she said, smiling. She opened her large purse and rummaged around in its ratty-looking interior. "Since it suits you to serve other people's needs, she added humorously, handing him the envelope with her tickets. A long red hair was stuck in its fold.

"You want me to check your bag through to Chicago?"

"No, I can carry it, Oh, what the hell, yes, check it. You see how completely I have capitulated to your services." She sank down in the nearest metal chair.

While he waited his turn in the line Francis stole several glances at her. How strange it was that this one person could be so many people in turn. First she had been a large, tall nun in a black cape, her eyes cast down as she marched beside the rector, toward the seminary. Then that collusive look she had shot him when passing beneath the ladder. Reading his secret affection for the colorful fanlight in the gray building. Then she was the dangerous performer with her elaborate coils of burnished hair, ("not quite what we expected," Father Floris said), striding up and down the carpet in the spike heels, flinging provocative ideas like handfuls of colored jelly beans into their black ranks. Then the merciless intelligence beside him in the dark wagon this morning, cross-examining him, drawing all those things out of him, then making him feel they were allies, twin strugglers holding out against the superfluous cruelty of superiors. Though she herself was so superior. And now this woman, older by some years than his eldest sister, with her tired, vulnerable face and vivid hair flaming brazenly out into the grayish morning light of the terminal; this exhausted lady slumped in her black cape in the metal chair, toward whom he felt a sudden surge of protectiveness.

He hadn't even known her this time yesterday, except as a name in a letter he had typed for Father Floris. How strange to think that they were never going to see each other again.

Ballantine Books | Paperback| 468 pages