WHO WILL GRIEVE FOR ME LIKE THAT? he thought, his cassock and stole rising about him on the wind as he watched the woman—baby in one arm, young son holding on to the other—weep at the edge of the grave. A tear caught where her lower lip rose at the corner of her mouth, and he looked away. Looked at spring in the cemetery. The uncurling gray-green buds not yet leaves on the trees. The grass patchy where it had not filled in from winter. The brown mounds of other opened graves scattered across the now-thawed ground like round and nameless headstones of dirt. When he looked back again, it was his father’s grave at which he stood and prayed, his mother a solitary figure in black flanked and held by her younger brother and sister, an autumn wind pushing against the stole he wore then, stiff with the newness of his own faculties as a priest. Four months after Father Tomáš Rovnávaha had said his first mass, he was called upon to commit to the ground the man who had raised him. Less than a week after the two of them had sat on the porch of the old house in the Hill Section of Scranton sipping whiskey and talking about where they might yet do some fishing before the winter. The man was everything to him. The classics professor who had taught his only son Latin before the first grade. The pugilist who taught the timid boy how to throw a punch. The outdoorsman who taught the young man how to hunt and fish and took him to the Poconos for weeks in the summer because Mother needed the rest. The father who embraced his son’s decision to enter the seminary after he had come home from Europe and the war and taken a philosophy degree in two years on the G.I. Bill instead of completing his studies in engineering at Lehigh University that he began in 1940 and left in ’42 to enlist in the army. Although Professor Rovnávaha had never known war, he understood struggle, understood it the way the ancients understood it, and he was pleased with the reason his son had given, the reason of no reason at all, and reminded Tomáš of what Pascal had written, quoting it to him there on the porch. C’est le coeur qui sent Dieu, et non la raison.
Then it was gone. The memory of the day. The memory of the grave. The voice of his father. He was standing again in the cemetery in Dardan, Pennsylvania, before the wife of the man he was burying, her sons, her father, and the men from the roughing mill who had come dressed in suits so rarely worn they looked like blackened husks hanging from their shoulders. And all that could be heard on the hillside was the wind. He stood before them and said nothing, waiting between the prayer of committal and final blessing with a silence that might have seemed to those gathered like a respectful bow to the dead, but was not. He was simply caught. He was too new at this. Not to the grief, but to the shepherding of it. He watched Hannah Konar as she stared at the casket perched above ground that was part dirt, part shoots of grass and crocuses, and wondered again if anyone alive would mourn him one day as she mourned, and he knew the answer. Then her father, Jozef Vinich, the man who owned the roughing mill and was the reason the others had come, not the man being buried, turned his head in Rovnávaha’s direction and nodded, as if to say, It’s time to mourn him elsewhere, Father. The priest looked down at his book, turned the page, and asked out loud for the holy angel to watch over the grave, then gave the blessing and made the sign of the cross.
He pulled the Plymouth into the parking lot of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel and walked to the rectory with his stole draped over his arm. His left foot ached in the way it always ached in the wake of winter days, had ached in the cold ever since the night in France he slept in a foxhole and woke to snow and frostbite, and he tried not to let it drag. Twenty-eight years old and he was no faster or nimbler than the old ones tottering around the diocesan retreat house. He limped up the steps of the rectory, pushed the key in the lock, and called out for Esther the housekeeper, then remembered it was her day off. Dishes sat in the sink, coffee from breakfast lukewarm in the percolator. He poured a cup and went into his office to finish paying the bills he had stacked on the desk and, if there was time before the 12:15 mass, to look at the readings and jot down some notes for his homily on Sunday.
The bishop had kept the newly ordained Father Rovnávaha at the chancery in Scranton after the man’s father passed away so that he could check on his mother, and because the bishop saw his skill and was always on the lookout for men who had a heart for discernment and a mind for administration. But throughout the winter Rovnávaha, a late vocation they had rushed through to ordination, seemed lost, disengaged, and none of the priests he helped in Scranton told the bishop this one should be pushed up the ladder. Send him someplace as remote and aloof as he was, they said. So, the bishop called Rovnávaha in at the beginning of Lent and told him that the old priest at Saint Michael’s in Dardan was sound as a colonnade and would be a good man from whom to learn how to run a parish, how to be a priest in what they called the sticks. And that was true for the first two weeks Rovnávaha spent in the beautiful stone church that sat on the side of a clear-cut hill like an erratic left from the ice age and reminded him of a church in which he once took cover with his platoon in France. Father Blok was magnanimous and kind when Rovnávaha moved in with the Plymouth that his father once owned and was his now, sitting down over coffee and telling the new assistant he wished more of the young priests these days had taken some time to see the world, as though Rovnávaha had just returned from a tour of Europe on the Queen Mary. Then Blok, seeing in his fellow priest the hardened patience and impatience of a man who knows other men have died in order for him to be standing there, realized his blunder.
—Forgive me, Tomáš, he said. The bishop told me you had been in combat in the war, before you entered the seminary.
—I served with the Twenty-Eighth, Rovnávaha said. Hürtgen Forest before the German push.
Blok looked down at the table and back at Rovnávaha.
—Hard fighting there, he said.
—Some of the worst.
—You and the husband of a woman in town are the only two I know from the Twenty-Eighth who came back. I was a chaplain with the Fifth Marines in 1918. Belleau Wood.
—I know, Rovnávaha said. The bishop told me.
—Well, Blok said and stood and put fresh water and coffee in the percolator. He told Rovnávaha over his shoulder it was the young ones he felt sorry for. Ordained priests who would meet men and women who have had to make harder choices in one day than those priests will have to make in their entire lives dressed up as monsignors in a rectory somewhere. Then he sat back down at the table.
—And when they do, Blok said, they will believe that what they’ve chosen is somehow still a better choice, as though it were written in stone somewhere. When it’s not. It’s just a choice.
Blok introduced Rovnávaha to Jozef Vinich that first week in Dardan when they went to Ruby’s for coffee after morning mass. Rovnávaha watched the Ford pickup with Endless Roughing Mill painted on the side door pull into the parking lot of the diner, watched the man for whom they had come down off the hill into town move like any other man toward the front door, and yet Rovnávaha could tell the man had somewhere else moved with that same purpose through whatever battle had raged around him too.
—Our Cato, Blok said.
Vinich came into the diner and sat down in the empty seat between the two priests without looking for them, as though he knew where Blok would always be.
—Dobré ráno, Padre, he said in Slovak, and Blok returned the good morning and introduced Rovnávaha, and they all three spoke in Slovak for the next hour like some backroom triumvirate discussing the handing off of affairs.
Rovnávaha did not understand all of it. Vinich’s concern for the son-in-law returned from the war, his daughter, her hope that her husband would find a way back into their lives after having been cleared of the desertion charge, their son getting to know his father, and the baby now, who took up everyone’s time. Blok listened and nodded and told Vinich that his conversations with the cardinal secretary of state at the Curia (an admission that surprised Rovnávaha) had given him a fuller picture of what happened toward the end, the extent to which the resistance was made up of those men who fought on, when they found it was safer to fight with the French than to look for their units again and end up in a German prison.
Vinich sipped his coffee.
—I had heard of men who did that, Rovnávaha said.
—Did you? Vinich asked.
—When the push came in December, everything fell apart for the space of a month. Supplies. Communications. Days I didn’t know who was in my platoon, let alone which direction the Germans were coming from. There were men everywhere, and not always the ones you wanted to see.
Vinich stared at him, weighing something in his mind, it seemed to the priest.
—Did it make you want to run? Vinich asked.
Rovnávaha shook his head.
Blok said how glad he was to have been sent Rovnávaha and not some choirboy whose Latin was better than his own.
—Tomáš was raised in the Poconos, Blok said.
—Good fishing up there, Vinich said. Do you fish, Padre?
—Still use the Heddon rod my father bought me when I was ten.
—I could tell, Vinich said. I’ve got a feeder stream to the Salamander on a corner of my property. Fast enough for brook trout, deep enough for browns. When this weather warms, you come up and we’ll go fishing.
—I’d like that, Rovnávaha said.
Vinich rose and took five dollars from his money clip and placed it on the table.
—Keep doing the Lord’s work, gentlemen, he said, and walked outside to his truck.
When Blok woke Rovnávaha one morning in March, the side of the pastor’s face drooping and the words he tried to form slurred and scared-sounding, Rovnávaha drove him in the Plymouth to the General Hospital and knew he would never see Blok in the rectory again. And nor was the bishop going to transfer anyone to Saint Michael’s before the summer. Rovnávaha was on his own.
Then the rain and the cold. Weather he always hated for what it held off, what it reminded him of. Though winter was gone and the days were lengthening, the cold came in so fast and the rain in such torrents that everything seemed to follow it to a standstill. No baptisms. No spring weddings. No trips to the hospital or nursing home for extreme unction. And yet he welcomed it now. The chance to walk through the rectory and the church by himself, without having to tell Esther, or Jack the sexton, or Rosemarie who played the organ on Sundays, how this meal was cooked, that door was locked, or which songs were supposed to be sung. They knew better than he did. So that when the weather broke a week later, and spring and Lent and all of what those seasons held marched their way toward Easter, he was more comfortable in the church. More comfortable among the silence of his own making.
The phone rang in the late morning on a Monday in April. It was Vinich. He wasn’t calling about fishing but to ask Rovnávaha to come to the hospital, the request respectful and terse (Our Cato, he heard Blok say, and missed the old priest). Rovnávaha got into his car and drove to the General Hospital, where he was too late. He said the prayers for the dead and left the room to speak to Hannah Konar, the woman whose husband had just died from a bullet wound to his chest.
The doctors had already told her he could not be saved, and she had the look of someone who had gone past the shock and hope that what had happened to her husband was not as bad as it seemed, then moved to resignation and the acceptance of loss. A place Rovnávaha knew. Vinich was standing as he approached, and the man didn’t offer his hand, only motioned for him to sit next to his daughter, who had her head bowed, as though unaware of any and all around her. Rovnávaha took her hand, thin and strong, and felt her fingers lace into his, felt the warmth as it raced through him so fast he had to catch his breath before he could go on and say to the woman what he believed he should say, not knowing if she needed or even wanted to hear it. And, three days later, after he had come back from the graveside where he had buried the man and comforted the widow, Rovnávaha wondered again if the bishop hadn’t put too much faith in his ability to be the kind of priest these people needed.
He heard the noon Angelus begin to peal from the church bell tower, and he rose from his desk, finished his coffee, and hoped as he walked down the stairs of the rectory and outside toward the church that Jozef Vinich was serious about inviting him onto his land to fish.
He had noticed the man in the back pew during mass, wondered why he was not at work, and here he was standing in the doorway of the sacristy asking Rovnávaha if the older priest was around. When Rovnávaha told him Father Blok had gone on to his eternal reward, the man asked if they could speak privately. There was a nervousness about him, and not just from his lack of comfort about being in a church. Rovnávaha thought he had seen him somewhere before, a soul uneasy around any and all human beings, like the scouts of the Twenty-Eighth Rovnávaha saw move past him in the cold and snow at broken intervals for the space of a week with only rifle, pack, ammunition belt, then a long absence, until another slipped past, soundless, solitary, different and yet the same as the one who had walked past him before. Rovnávaha remembered then. Standing at the periphery of the mourners that morning, not even among them but closer to where the cars had parked, yet looking for some way to enter the grief. Rovnávaha nodded, hung up the last of his vestments, and asked the sacristan if he could have a moment alone.
Before the priest even moved to invite him to sit down, the man said he did not believe he was in need of mercy or forgiveness from God or savior. If he had been wronged or had a case against another, he took it up with that one himself, or left it, not just believing but knowing now that nature had its own higher sense of right and wrong and acted accordingly in the balance. But now he had done something very wrong, and he needed to know that he was right in believing so.
—You need to confess? Rovnávaha asked and turned toward the drawer where he kept his stole.
And the man’s voice rose there in the closed quarters of the sacristy.
—I don’t need to confess anything, Father. I need you to listen.
Rovnávaha closed the drawer. There was nowhere to sit in the sacristy, and he needed to sit. He put his hand on the sink and stared into the drain, the drain plumbed into the earth where the wine-turned-blood would mix with nothing but earth.
—Why me? he asked.
—Because there is no one you know in this town. Because you are not sure yet that you even want to stay in this town. Because, in this town, I have nowhere else to go.
—Let’s sit in one of the pews and discuss this.
—No, the man said. In the box, or the booth, or whatever you call it. If anyone sees me, there will be talk of Younger’s sorrow. Younger’s need for forgiveness. But that’s not what I need it for.
—What do you need it for? Rovnávaha asked.
—Do I need? said the man to no one, and walked into the church, paused to see that it was empty, then walked down the side aisle to the back and entered the confessional.
Rovnávaha was not long behind him. He entered the booth, opened the screen, and began.
—No, Younger said. No blessings, no sins, no months or years or lifetimes it has been. Haven’t you heard a word I said? I am here to tell you so that the record of the thing will live and be remembered at least by someone, even if you were to leave here as quietly and unnoticed as you arrived.
—I see, Rovnávaha said. Go on.
And he told the priest about growing up on the land that his father refused to call the Vinich land, the boundary between the forests and the field where their house stood and his father worked only a wall to walk over. It was all he knew, all he had, and when his father died and he found out Vinich owned the house and field too, his father no more than a sharecropper, if he could even call it that, he packed up and walked out. Left the house and moved into a saltbox on the flats.
—I’ve heard about the land, the priest said. The ownership and permission. Mr. Vinich’s intentions seem right to me. Who cares about ownership, if care of the house and the land is all he wants? Care he must know you will give it, as your father had.
Younger was quiet in the dark behind the screen.
—When I was able to admit to myself that I was nothing when I was not on that land, he said finally, I went to him and asked if I could hunt there whenever I needed to hunt. For food. For myself. And he said yes. He said, Paul, that house needs repair too, if you’ll do the same for it that you’ll do for the land.
—And you said?
—I said no. Not to the land but to the house. I wanted to be free of it because it only reminded me of what my father lost and how. His appetites. Then all those years of the war when all those men were gone. They were like years of peace to me. The army wouldn’t have me, so I just slipped back into the woods and kept that house and my old man at a good distance. Then I married a woman who didn’t mind the small house I bought for us on the poor side of town. That’s what we were. And she let me go back to the woods when I needed to, sometimes staying for days up there, just waiting. Watching and waiting.
He told the priest he had seen them in the woods long before that, had seen them when his father was still alive, even met Konar when he was nothing but a boy with Vinich and his daughter when she was a girl, in the field one day, and he wished they could walk those woods alone together because he heard that the boy was good with horses, and he for the first time in a long time thought there was something someone might teach him about the woods that he didn’t already know. But they never did. Walk those woods. Younger’s father died, and the war came, and then one day, long after the war, he saw that boy, a man now, making his way up to the bend with Vinich’s daughter who had become his wife. After that, the man began coming to the same place alone. Younger followed him a few times before he made himself visible, and when he did come out of the thick hemlock and say, You sure know how to make yourself scarce, he realized Konar was doing the same, following him, letting himself be seen by Younger when he wanted to, and Younger never knew it.
—There was a kind of sameness to us, Father, he said to the priest. Knew right off. We used to sit by the creek there and talk and smoke, or rather I talked and he listened, or asked questions about the game, where and how they moved, time of day, where I would lie in wait, and I knew he knew about more than horses.
The man was quiet then, and priest and confessor sat in the quiet of the booth meant for privacy and the admission of sin. Sat in the dark to which their eyes had adjusted long ago so that each could see the other sitting back, relaxed almost, as though it were these two alone on the creek at the bend, waiting while what each knew about the other sank in amid the quiet of nave or grove, the difference seeming unremarkable.
—He came to you? the priest asked.
—No. He came for the bear. On the edge of the game lands. I’d seen him before. And I’d seen the two of them at the creek, Konar talking to the bear like he was family or something. And I know he brought his wife up there to see the animal too. I had come upon them once when I had watched the bear scamper before they got there. And I said to them, One day you’re going to have to accept the death of that old bear.
—And you think he was there, in the spring, to see the bear?
—I know he was. There was no step that man took into a forest that he didn’t know he was taking and why. I’ll give him that. And I was both amazed and angry at what he was doing. A bear in spring. God almighty. And he would not slow, would not back down, even when that bear turned and—I watched this through the scope I was sighting on my Weatherby—tried to walk away. And he, he called to the bear and kept moving after it, like a man in need, you know? And then that bear turned, finally, lean and hungry and confused as he was, and rose. Konar looked up at him, and I swear he smiled before he seemed to come to his senses and looked pained. Then the bear raised a paw and struck him, and Konar went down. I swear he went down, Father. Went down right at the feet of that bear, and I had that animal in my sights the whole time, had the center of his back in the crosshairs where I knew the .300 would pierce the heart. And I fired.
Rovnávaha listened to the breathing on the other side of the screen and waited.
—I swear he’d fallen, Younger said again. Swear he’d gone down from the swat of that bear.
—But he hadn’t, had he? Rovnávaha could see Younger shaking his head through the screen.
—When I got to them, they were hugging. Konar on the ground and the bear on top of him. The two of them in an embrace like that. I was afraid the bear was still alive and he was dead. But it was the opposite. I rolled the bear off of him, and I could feel a pulse, but he was losing blood. The round I fired had gone right through the bear and into Konar’s chest. I fireman-carried him out of there as fast as I could to my truck on the old logging road and drove him to the police station in town.
He almost whispered this last bit of information, and Rovnávaha whispered back.
—It was an accident, Paul. You thought you were saving him.
—I know, Father.
—An accident, Rovnávaha said again, as though he were saying it to convince himself. You’re forgiven this, Paul. And Hannah Konar will forgive you too, if you go to her and tell her what you told me. She would understand. She knew what her husband was going through. It was an accident.
Younger sat unmoving on the other side of the screen.
—I won’t go to her, he said. That’s not why I’m here.
—Why then? Rovnávaha asked.
—To tell you I know of his punishment.
—For what, Paul?
—For the vow I broke.
—The vow? You mean your marriage vow? Is that what you mean?
—I see, the priest said and breathed as though he was tired now. Go on.
It was the hunting, he told Rovnávaha. In the beginning his wife found it romantic, the way he would disappear for days, then return with game they would salt and keep on ice as long as they could, the simple bounty, the dependence on no one, the raw hunger with which they ate. But in time, the days away and the work, the preparation to go on the hunt, the attention to the kill upon returning, the dressing, the preserving, the constant cleaning of everything—hands, house, knives, firearms, all but the unwashed and unshaven man himself—began to wear on her. And when he started looking out the windows at the creek because there was no other task to occupy him, and she began making the long walk to the center of town for things like flour and fresh vegetables, he would be up the next day before the sun, the .30-30 and the .30-06 resting on the table in their cases, and he would say to her when she woke, I’ve got to go or else we’ll be out of food. And for the first time that spring, she said, We wouldn’t be if you’d get a job so that we could buy it regular. This is my job, he told her. His work. But he knew she would not see in him what he believed was a need. Would dismiss it rather as stupidity or stubbornness, and not change.
Younger looked down in the dark of the confessional and pushed out breath that Rovnávaha could hear, and smell too.
—I was at the bar in Luzerne during those days of rain, when it just wouldn’t stop, you know? he said, still looking down. I was drinking and not wanting to go home, and I knew who the woman at the end of the bar was. I knew how she hunted too, what her needs were, and I had similar ones that evening. So, for the first time in my life, I paid for a license.
Rovnávaha did not move his head or his hands or any part of his body there in his priest’s stall. Just sat as though frozen. He knew when Younger had directed him to the confessional there would be some kind of reckoning. And here it was.
—Then I went home, Younger went on. Washed and shaved and she treated me no better than when I hadn’t. We ate and slept, and two days later, when the rains stopped, I went back up to the woods to sight my Weatherby for a hunting trip out to western PA I’d always wanted to take, and I found Becks Konar and the bear.
He finished, and the priest was quiet, waiting, though for what he wasn’t sure, until he heard the man’s breath catch, and through the screen and muted light he saw him hunched with his head in his hands.
—Paul, he said.
The man began to sob out loud, too loud for the close space of the confessional.
—Paul, the priest said again.
And he began to wail now, so loud that Rovnávaha leaned back from the screen where he had placed his head.
—She pities me, Father. She pities me. Not for the whore. She doesn’t know about that. But because she knows me enough to know that I didn’t kill him on purpose. That it was him who was looking for the bear out of some madness, or the bullet out of some pain, and because of that I have to live in the shadow of his death. Because of that she has changed toward me. At night she came to me in bed, told me that I didn’t have to go to the funeral, that I didn’t have to say to Hannah Konar, I’m sorry. I only had to know that she believed I am not a murderer, and the sooner I put this aside and get back into those woods, the better for us as a family. As a family, Father, and that was the first time since she had said Yes, Paul Younger, I will marry you that I believed my father’s name might not stop with me.
He had composed himself by the end, Rovnávaha watching him as he wiped at his face with the back of his hand, and the priest moved close to the screen.
—Does she know about your transgression? He asked in a voice that was low but not a whisper.
—No. And I won’t tell her. It’s done enough to destroy one family. There might yet be a family to come in the wake of it.
—She’ll need to forgive you.
—She’ll never forgive me. Not for that. For killing a man, yes. But not for that.
—Paul, the priest said.
—Father, Younger said louder. Don’t you see why I’m here? I aimed that rifle. I fired that bullet, and it found its way into the chest of a man because of my weakness and my need. I sent it the minute I drank off that whiskey and followed that whore back to her room and laid down with her, because I wanted to be wanted for what I had chosen to do, how I had chosen to live in this town, where they have no idea what the Younger name means anymore. And I swear I watched that man fall and rise again so that—that bullet would find him, even as it crashed through the shoulders of a beast. It took that man to make me see clear-eyed and harsh that I am to live with this guilt for the rest of my life.
—Paul, Rovnávaha said in a voice he struggled to keep measured. What about the wife of Becks Konar? What has she done to deserve to become a widow with two sons? Can that be in the Lord’s plan to punish you? To punish you both? The Lord does not punish with wrath but with mercy.
Younger spoke in a flat tone now, as though answering an interrogation.
—I don’t know what’s in her heart.
—No, Rovnávaha said. You don’t. But I have seen her grief. You have seen it too.
—And I did that.
—Not by the hand of God.
—That’s all I’ve ever seen from God. The one who gives and the one who takes away. Isn’t that what you preach, Father? Because that’s all I’ve ever seen.
The priest was sitting up now and still trying to keep his voice even, trying to persuade this man that the balance he believed in was not the scale with which God measured. That there was no scale at all.
—Paul, what if Becks Konar had gone in search of you out of his own sense of guilt and sin for what he had done in the war? Believing so strongly that, though he was a father and husband, his children and his wife did not deserve to live in the shadow of that guilt? He was no murderer either, though he killed men. In war. As I have. I see still the flash of the teeth of the man I shot when he stood to advance and I heard the stick snap and I aimed and fired. What of him? What of the men next to me with only the sound of their own breath pushing out of their mouths before they died? Was there the movement of some chess piece moments before that sealed their fates because they had done something, something sinful, and I hadn’t? No. God does not act out of malice or retribution or spite. Only love.
—Love, Younger said. Which God do you believe in, Father? The one who allows it to happen, or does nothing to let it not happen?
—That is not his way, Rovnávaha said. It is we who deliberate. We who have the will. We choose, even though all would be lost.
—And we have been, Father. Lost. So where is your comfort in that now?
—In the forgiveness, Paul!
He was almost shouting there in the close and dim-lit quarters of his stall, though both men still spoke nearly face-to-face.
—That is the given. That is what is never taken away. He will forgive us no matter what.
—Well, then your God is more of a fool than I thought, Younger said, and stood and walked from the booth, Rovnávaha listening to the sound of the man’s steps as they echoed through the church toward the vestibule and ceased with a slam of the great doors.
Two days later, after the 12:15 mass, Father Tomáš Rovnávaha got into his Plymouth and drove up Rock Mountain Road to the Vinich farm. The sky had been changeable, but the sun came out as he pulled into the driveway, and it lit up the budding apple trees in the orchard and the shoots of tulips and hosta emerging in green rows along the beds outlining the house. The Ford pickup was not in the drive. He parked in front and walked to the steps and onto the porch and raised the hitching-post knocker on the front door.
She answered with the baby in her arms, the child Blok had christened, the boy they called Samuel, his face red and his chin milk-streaked, and she pulled the muslin in which she had wrapped the baby across her chest in the same move she had made to open the door. She looked surprised to see the priest.
—Hello, Father, she said and blushed.
He looked down at the threshold of the door, then back at her.
—Good afternoon, Mrs. Konar. Is this a bad time?
—Oh no. Come in, please. Have you had lunch? There’s soup on the stove and I was just about to put the baby down for a nap. Come in. Please. I could use the company.
—Well, I don’t know what kind of company I’ll be, but thank you, I would love some lunch, Rovnávaha said and followed her in.
The house was warm, and he could smell woodsmoke and bread rising. A black retriever ran into the foyer and skittered about his legs. Hannah told him the dog’s name was Duna, then took his coat and hung it up with one arm, holding the baby in the other.
—Excuse me for a minute, she said, and walked upstairs.
He had heard of but had not seen the Vinich house. He only knew of the man’s reputation in the town for being aloof and exacting. Standing in the vaulted entryway with its grand staircase, crystal chandelier, and openness more suited to some robber baron’s mansion in Scranton, he now understood why. And yet, there was a comfort to the vastness of the house, a warmth and purpose there in the wood and high windows and stone fireplace visible in the living room. And in spite of the place of the foyer as a kind of dwelling in and of itself, he felt as though he could follow the smells of cooking coming from a kitchen somewhere down the well-lit hall and find a table on which food was served to any and all who sat down and ate. And that would be exactly what the woman and her father would want him to do. Would want anyone who crossed that threshold to do.
He petted the lab’s head and belly and spoke to it, and the dog rolled onto its back, until Hannah Konar came down the stairs again with a cardigan over her dress. She had tied her long blonde hair back, and he could see her eyes were red and swollen around the pale and narrow-pupiled gray that made them so striking, so almost cold looking, and she smiled at her visitor in spite of the man she had been weeping for not minutes before Rovnávaha came to the door. She stepped barefoot onto the foyer floor without making a sound, and he followed her down the hall to the kitchen, which was just as he imagined. Table and chairs and woodstove on which the pots of stock and soup were both warming, and he sat and she ladled out two bowls and set them on the table across from each other and placed at the center of that table a warm loaf of bread.
They both ate quietly, Rovnávaha complimenting her on the fine soup, until she asked if there was a particular reason for his visit, and he said he only wanted to come by to see how she was after the funeral.
—To see if maybe there was anything you needed, he added. Anything more I could do.
—Thank you, Father, she said and looked down into her soup. I haven’t had much time to think about more than the baby and Bo. And keeping the house in some semblance of order.
—How is the boy? Rovnávaha asked.
—Bo? He’s fine. I wanted him to stay home from school this week, but he said he wanted to go. Said they were catching frogs in science class for a terrarium, so that’s where he is now. I’ll walk down the hill in a little bit and meet him at the bus.
—Does he understand what happened?
—Yes, she said and stirred her soup but didn’t eat any more. He was shy around his father when Becks first came home. But in the past six months the two of them had gotten close. So yes, he understands. And he’s sad in the only way he knows how. I know because he talks to Papa about it, and Papa tells me. They go on walks and do chores together, and I don’t know exactly how they talk about it, but they do. I can tell Bo needs him. He’s growing up so fast, that boy.
Rovnávaha finished his soup and touched the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
—And you? he asked. Do you have anyone to talk to?
—I don’t know, Father. There’s not much talking to do, is there? It can’t help me now.
She stood and cleared the table and brought out cups and coffee.
—I didn’t know him, your husband, Rovnávaha said from his seat while she was standing at the counter pouring cream into a creamer. I found out later from your father that we fought in the same division, though I landed in Europe later. We probably even passed each other somewhere over there.
She sat down again and feigned an interest, but he could see she was already tired of their conversation and he had outworn his welcome. But it was why he had come, and so he went on.
—I wanted to tell you, he said, because I’m not sure anyone else could, that it was hard there. The fighting was bad. The men who survived did so by some stroke of luck. Hand of God. I don’t know. It wasn’t until I was on my way to Berlin, when I seemed to have woken up from the cocoon of survival I was in, that I began to wonder how it was I had not been left in the woods or on the roadside or in pieces in some village somewhere. We all broke in our own ways. Something inside. Something that died, though we didn’t. I can’t say. But you need to know that he was in no way a man or a soldier who lacked honor. Father Blok knew that. He showed me the cables from the Vatican. He was an honorable man, Hannah.
—I know, Father, she said. I know what he did, and what he didn’t do. And even if he wasn’t an honorable man. Even if he hid in a basement for the entire war, just to come home to me and his family, I would have forgiven him that. His not coming home was what I feared the most, and when he did, nothing else mattered. Nothing else. That’s why this is more painful even than that.
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
—I understand, he said and sipped his coffee, and they were quiet again, until he looked over at her staring down at the table, and she was crying, her mouth open and soundless, but he could see the tears dropping into her cup with short little splashes that rippled to the edge of the china. He stood and moved around the table and sat next to her and put his arm on her shoulder.
—It’s all right, he said. It’s all right.
She heaved and burst into sobs, and he pulled her in closer and let her cry, saying nothing now. Wanting to say nothing. Waiting for her to find a window into that grief on her own.
When she had finished and wiped her eyes, she touched his hand and whispered, Thank you, and he went back to his side of the table and moved his chair out so that it was facing her but he was not.
—I wish I knew what to do, he said. What more to tell you. But I don’t.
She pulled the cardigan closer around her shoulders and buttoned it in the middle.
—I was thinking about a dream I had once when my mother died, she said. The two of us came down with the flu when I was just a girl, and my father told me later that she and I were both very sick. And on what turned out to be the night she died, I had a dream I’ll never forget. It was midsummer, and I was in a living room in a house that was sweltering from the heat, and I was surrounded by people who I knew had already died. My Grandmother and Grandfather Posol. The Hudák boy from Brookside who drowned in the river. Mrs. Franklin, my piano teacher in Dardan. And Mr. Cording, whom I had never met, but whose photograph I had seen on the mantle of the fireplace in Miss Cording’s living room. I was with my mother, and we had just walked into that room and sat down, everyone’s face fixed and white, until one by one each rose and moved toward the open door and walked through it. Mr. Cording. The Hudák boy. Mrs. Franklin. Grandmother and Grandfather Posol the last. When my mother got up to go with them, I yelled out Mama! And she turned and told me the way she had always told me the things I needed to hear, We want you to stay, Hannah. They’ll need you. I hollered again, but she pointed to someone or something behind me, and I looked and must have been in some state between dreaming and waking up, because Becks was sitting in a chair in my room, and he was singing, like he always did. And when I turned back to my mother, I saw only the back of her walking through the door with the others. I called out again, but she didn’t turn around.
Hannah looked up then from the table and her coffee cup and dabbed at her cheeks with a napkin so that the red that once circled her eyes was the color of her face.
—Do you know how long I’ve been a priest? Rovnávaha asked.
—It shows, she said and managed a weak smile so that he smiled too.
—They don’t teach you in seminary what to tell grieving widows, what you just told me yourself. But I know what loss he saw, Hannah. And I know it can change a man, so that he is both not himself and more himself. But your loss is real too. No matter what he went through. No one shaped by loss knows loss in the same way the widow knows loss. Where there was once the closeness of love there is now a gulf between you. But listen. My hope—and this is all I feel I can tell you—is that something of that love will never be lost. That he will always be next to you, and that he, wherever he is, will need you to be next to him. That’s my hope. And maybe you won’t feel that for a long time. But maybe one day you will.
She turned the cup in its saucer with her thumb and took a deep breath to steady herself.
—You’re not as bad at this as you think, she said.
He managed a small laugh, then stood and began to clear the cups and saucers. She tried to stand as well.
—No, I’ll clean up, he said, and she sat back down and smoothed her sweater and straightened her hair. He put the dishes in the sink, and she told him to leave them there and he returned to the table.
—How long will the baby sleep? he asked.
—Not much longer now. I’ll take him with me to get Bo.
—And your father? He’s at the mill?
—No, she said. He drove out to Huntsville. He had to return the papers for a horse he bought. For Becks.
She took in another deep breath.
—He seemed to miss Pushkin almost as much as he missed us when he came home, she said. And I suppose he would have. When he first got here—I mean when he arrived here as a boy—that horse was the only thing that calmed him. I used to follow him to the barn without him knowing, although I found out later he always knew, and I would hide beneath the window and listen to him speak to the horse in Romani. Sometimes he would sing. I loved when he sang. I didn’t know what he was singing then, but I know now that it was gentle and kind and a little questioning sometimes. I felt sorry for him, all alone, no family, no way even to return to a family, and only my father could talk to him. So, I didn’t begrudge him the love he showed that horse. Papa wondered if perhaps a new one might bring that part of him back. Help him in some way.
She broke off and turned to look out the kitchen window onto the orchard, the apple trees a silver green as their leaves started to uncurl. Looked out as though searching for someone she missed. As though this time she might see him there yet. Then she turned back to Rovnávaha at the table.
—Papa bought a young mare named Irene just last week. She was supposed to be delivered today, but instead he’s at the horse farm negotiating the return.
—I understand, Rovnávaha said.
—I thought of keeping her anyway, Hannah said, as though she hadn’t heard. Teaching Bo how to ride and care for her. But Papa said no. I don’t think he has the heart for it anymore. He loved Becks like a son, and I know that the war and the disappearance and the charges against him hurt Papa as much as any of us. You ought to try those priest skills you’ve got on him, Father. Might do the man some good.
—He promised me we’d go fishing one day.
—That’s a promise you should hold him to, she said.
They heard the waking cry of the baby then.
—Go to him, Rovnávaha said. I’ll let myself out.
She stood, they embraced, and she kissed him on the cheek and stepped back again.
—Will you come for lunch another time? she asked.
—Yes, he said.
The baby’s cries grew louder, and she turned and walked quickly down the hall. Rovnávaha listened to her light footsteps hurry up the stairs, her voice carrying as she climbed and spoke softly to the child, Oh Samuel, Samuel, don’t cry. Then she began to sing a strange and mournful song in a language Rovnávaha had never heard before, the baby becoming quiet as soon as the first few notes reached him, until there was no other sound in the great house but the melody of that song, and Rovnávaha stood in the kitchen listening, his hands holding the back of the chair as if he would fall.
Andrew Krivak is the author of three novels: The Sojourn (Bellevue), a National Book Award finalist; The Signal Flame (Scribner); and The Bear (Bellevue), an NEA Big Read selection. “Moth and Rust” is excerpted from his forthcoming novel, Like the Appearance of Horses (Bellevue).