The Priest's Wife: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

A story by John L’Heureux

1 The priest and his wife were seen skiing together before they were married; or, rather, she was seen skiing and he was around, somewhere.

She took the lift to the slope reserved for advanced skiers. She was wearing a black parka and formfitting ski pants, also black. Her blond hair hung loose and straight.

Those who watched with binoculars from the deck of the lodge said it was an exercise in discipline. She allowed herself none of the indulgences of the advanced skiers. She plunged straight down vertical slopes, shooting off at an angle over horizontal ones, slaloming between invisible poles even when her momentum would seem to indicate certain disaster. She never shifted weight suddenly from one leg to the other. She never skidded, never fell. She crouched, swerved, straightened, her body always completely in control.

An exercise in grace, someone said. No one could take eyes off her and so no one was sure who said it. It may have been the priest.

Snow had begun to fall so they all went indoors for hot buttered rum and a little fooling around by the fireplace. Every now and then somebody would look out the window and see her mounting once more that precipitous slope, and then the lightning descent, the perfect turn around the invisible poles.

Among twenty snowy mountains she was the only moving thing.

2 After he met her the priest was of three minds regarding what he ought to do. After he watched her skiing on the slopes he was of one mind. He wanted to be a poet and write perfect love songs. For God, naturally. And then eventually perhaps for publication. And finally just to create a good thing. To make something. He was of one mind about that.

With such an attitude, it was inevitable that in time he got out and left behind him the order, the priesthood, and—he sometimes thought—common sense. Burdened with an artist’s drive and a priest’s training, he did what anyone would do. He married her and became a teacher of high school English.

3 She had a face like a woman in a novel. Her grandfather said that to her once when she was nine or ten, and it pleased her. It gave her an existence out there, in the real world, in a book.

She was Katharine Stone, age nine or perhaps ten, and she was called Kate. Her father was a psychiatrist and her mother was a psychiatric nurse; they employed a cleaning woman, a part-time gardener, and a parttime cook. These people, and her German shepherd, Heidi, were her serious world. Her play world was at school where nothing was serious, really, not for a girl who had a face like a woman in a novel.

When Kate grew up she scrutinized novels, old ones particularly, in an effort to discover what her grandfather had meant. When she grew up some more, she turned to psychology in an effort to discover which woman in which novel she might be. In time she came to know certain women well, in and out of novels.

Even though she knew she was not beautiful, she worried that she might be Anna Karenina, a woman she knew by instinct, a woman she feared. Anna, with her red leather bag, getting on the train at the beginning; Anna, with that same red leather bag, plunging beneath the train’s wheels at the end. Why the red leather bag? Why the train? Surely Anna’s fate was in some way connected to the fact of her face. Surely one day she would unravel what that mysterious connection might be.

Perhaps she should write a novel of her own, as Cora had told her to. Perhaps she would someday. In the meanwhile she entered the convent. It was autumn, and as the sisters walked in twos from chapel to school, the wind caught their veils and whirled them about so that they flapped like the wings of blackbirds.

4 Cora Kelleher had been the cleaning lady for the Stones ever since Kate’s birth. She had seen Kate Stone grow up plain and skinny, she had seen her enter the convent, and she had seen her come out ten years later, blond and beautiful. In jig time Kate had gotten herself a husband, a job with IBM, and had taken up skiing, would you believe. There was no sign Kate was pregnant or about to be. Cora herself had had seven.

“I don’t see she’s pregnant,” Cora said to Eunice, the part-time cook.

“Who would that be, now?” Eunice said, moony as ever.

“Kate Stone that was.” She snorted. “The priest’s wife.”

“A lot of them today use the Pill.”

“A lot of them today use a lot of things.”

“She’s a beautiful girl, though.” Eunice stopped peeling potatoes and gazed out the window dreamily. “And her a nun once.”

“Her a nun and now that marriage. There’s no luck on that marriage, let me tell you that.”

“He teaches school,” Eunice said, peeling again.

“Only high school. For all his priest education, he only teaches high school.”

“She’s a beautiful girl, though.”

“Well, she was a plain stick of a thing when she was little. I remember once when she was no bigger than this, she says to me, giving herself airs, she says, ‘Grandpa said I have the face of a woman in a novel.’ ‘And why is he telling you grand things like that?’ I says. ‘Because I asked him if he thought I was pretty,’ she says. So I told her, I says to her, ‘Well then, you’ll have to write it yourself. There are no novels about skinny little things like yourself,’ I says.”

“Beautiful hair she has,” Eunice said, peeling.

“She was always uppity. Another time, after her grandpa died it was, she said to me, all serious and with her eyes big, she says, ‘I’m going to practice dying. Like Grandpa. I’m going to spend my whole life getting ready.’ ‘Are you, now!' I says to her. I says, ‘Well, you’re going to die anyway, ready or not, once it’s your time.’ Uppity she was and uppity she is.”

“And her a nun once,” Eunice said. “I could have been a nun once. Of course it’s too late now. And she ran the water loudly, so Cora Kelleher had to shout.

“There’ll be no luck to that marriage, you mark my words! A man and a woman are one thing. But a priest and a woman? It’s like having a buzzard sitting right square on your tombstone.”

5 It had been one hell of a day for him at school. The kids had been maliciously thickheaded and they had talked all through his exposition of Yeats’s “Second Coming.” So what was the use? And in the two hours before Kate got home from her office, he had accomplished absolutely nothing. The poem simply wouldn’t come right, he just didn’t have it, he wasn’t a poet.

“You are a poet,” she said, “you’re a wonderful poet. Why don’t you let me take a poet to dinner? Anywhere you want. Or you take me. Either way I get to dine with a poet. Bewitching.”

So they went out to dinner and afterward to a movie and by then he’d cheered up and they made love. Kate had office work to do but she kept quiet about it and, for his sake, pinched and poked him until he felt like doing it again. After the second time they lay, exhausted, staring at the ceiling.

“I’m going to take one more try at that poem,”he said.

“Good for you,”she said. “And I’m going to take a shower and fix you a nice drink—I won’t disturb you—and then I’ll go do a little work too.”

He heard the water come on and the glass doors slide dosed. She was being awfully good; she always was. And he knew what a bore he must be, what a pain in the ass about being a failed poet. And God knows, he didn’t mean to rage; he just couldn’t help it. He’d make it up to her and surprise her in the shower.

He opened the bathroom door softly, though there was no need for stealth since the water was running wildly. He was about to slide open the glass doors to the shower when he saw—as if in a film—the long line of her body, complete, perfect. She had her head back so that the water struck her full in the face. He traced the long neck to where it disappeared in the rise of her small breasts. And then the rib cage and her little belly and the long severe thighs. Perfection.

He sat down on the toilet seat, his head in his hands.

“Will I ever know her?” he whispered, and then again, “Will I ever know her?” He had folded that body so completely into his own so many times now during these past three years, and still he had never seen her ... he could not find the words . . . her naked face. “I will never know her,” he whispered, but already he was thinking something else. He was thinking, I will never be a poet. Never.

He left the bathroom, angry, and went to his little study off the kitchen. Kate had shopped everywhere to get him just the right desk and she had decorated the study according to his instructions, but still he never used it. His desk was heaped with books and papers, so there was no room to write. He wrote either at the dining table, which he also kept heaped with books, or sitting in his easy chair. You don’t need a study if you can’t write anyhow, he had told her, though it was he who had insisted on the study in the first place.

He could hear her tiptoeing around the kitchen as she got his drink ready. How could he concentrate knowing she might interrupt him at any second? “I don’t want to bother you but. . .” He sat there, daring her. She glided into the room on her soft slippers and placed the drink on a coaster near him, patting him twice on the shoulder.

“Goddamnit,” he shouted, “I’m trying to write. Is there no place in this goddamned apartment I can work in peace?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she said, defensive, used by now to these outbursts. “I just gave you your drink.”

“You bumped me on the shoulder. You poked me twice. I was just getting it right and you interrupted and now it’s gone.” He looked at her with hatred and then took a good slug of his drink. “I’m sorry. I hate to sound like a bastard, but Jesus Christ!” He had been penitent for a second and now he was furious all over again. He slammed down the glass and the liquor sloshed onto his papers. “You always do this! You always ruin it! You always . . .” But she had gone. He followed her into the bedroom where she had her papers spread on the bed. She bent over the papers, not looking at him.

“Don’t,” she said. “Not again. I can’t take it.”

Sometimes I detest you,” he said. “Sometimes I curse the day I ever laid eyes on you.”

She stared back at him in silence. And then she said, “Someday you’ll say one thing too many. I give you warning. Now.”

He backed out of the room. Several drinks later he woke her up. “Forgive me, sweet. Katie, forgive me, please, he said, and buried his head in her breasts.

“I know, she said. “It’s all right. I love you.”

“Friends?” he said.

“Friends,” she said.

And so it was over, this time.

6 They had been married five years now, and it was winter. Icicles filled the long window that looked out over the ruined garden. It was evening and shadows in the garden and shadows in the living room flickered as Kate moved back and forth in front of the light, watering the indoor plants. She wore a red gown, knotted at the neck and waist, and it created for her a mood in which she could feel withdrawn but not unpleasant. Her husband sat with his chin in his hands, watching her, watching the shadows she cast. He had just despaired, yet again, of ever being a poet. And besides, he had a terrible sore throat. And so they had their last fight.

It was about her habit of visiting her widower father, that bastard, every Saturday, and about her job at IBM. And it was about her way of being vague with him, as if what he said required only half her attention, as if he didn’t really matter. And it was about his failure as a writer.

Five years of this and now, at last, she had had enough.

“I can’t live your life for you,” she said. “There are some things you’ve got to do for yourself. You’ve got to breathe, you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to crap, and goddamnit, you’ve got to live. If you hate your job, then do something about it. And if you resent mine, which you do, then why don’t you . . .”

“Go ahead, say it! Say it! You’ve been wanting to.”

But she didn’t say it. She went to bed and he went to the kitchen for a drink. He had a second and a third and then he went in to wake her but she wasn’t asleep yet anyhow. He apologized and she apologized and it was almost over.

Deliberately he looked at her hand. He had had a sort of vision once of who she was and how she loved him and it had split him down the middle. He had thought at the time that he had become two people, both of them crazy. And all because of her hand. She had placed it on his knee during a quarrel—afterward he could not remember what the quarrel was about—and he had watched it crumple and break like an autumn leaf, while his words continued angry and smooth and satisfying. In those days he had had all the words. And then, as the hand fell from his knee, he stopped and said to her, “I’m not a good person. I’m not like you.”He cried then, and he had not cried in fifteen years. That was during the first week of their marriage.

Now, five years later, he sat on the edge of the bed looking at her hand, white and small with long tapered fingers, trying to make it happen again, that vision.

But nothing happened.

“Friends?” he said.

“Friends,” she said.

In bed, they both pretended to sleep. After a long while she got up and poured herself a drink and sat in the dark living room. She finished it and poured herself another. Then, not really knowing what she was going to do, she put on the light and got out a pencil and a legal pad and wrote, “I want out. I want a divorce.” She stared at the words for a long time, and then she wrote them again. And then again. She found a peculiar satisfaction in forming the letters, in putting down on paper those words that finally said the unsayable. “I hate him. I hate what he turns me into. I hate the way he hates himself.” She made a list of the things she could not say, and she said them. She wrote out their most violent quarrels, including in parentheses the words she had not said because they might kill him. (“You’ll never be a poet.” “You have a gift for words but no gift for poetry.” “You’re wrecking your life and you’re trying to wreck mine, but I’m not going to let you.” “Why didn’t you stay in the priesthood and just drink yourself to death? ) And it was astonishing. Words did not kill, at least not on paper. Rather, they gave her a wonderful feeling of release, of freedom. She got herself another drink and went on writing until, hours later, she had run out of things she was angry at. Without a pause she moved into a description of how she had first met him, her husband now, in the train station. The strap had broken on her red leather tote bag and he had offered to help her with it. But the bag was square, and with his hands occupied with skis and his own suitcase, he hadn’t been able to get a good grip on it; he dropped it and it opened and spilled out keys and makeup and God knows what else. She had laughed at him then and he had laughed too.

She stopped writing—these notes, in time, would find their way into her first novel—and looked out at the garden where the sun was just touching the silver branches of the trees. A single blackbird lit on the end of a branch, making it bend, sending down a thin sifting of snow. Smiling to herself, she recited the Magnificat, as she had done every morning for the past twenty years.

And so the divorce was put off for eleven months.

7 During those eleven months they often walked by the river together. And they often dined out. He appeared to be the more talkative but in public she did most of the talking. If the marriage was not a happy one, they at least put a good face on it, and five years is a long time to put a good face on anything.

Acquaintances who had known them off and on for years said that marriage made them both merely conventional. His wild imagination and flights of whimsy disappeared altogether, replaced by a kind of watchfulness and a mildly sardonic humor. She talked politics a lot and, when the conversation turned to religion, she avoided discussion of how much she still believed, dismissing the topic with a remark about how bored she was with Sunday sermons.

Friends of hers who visited from the convent said the couple was supremely happy. She had taken to wearing high-fashion clothes, finding it necessary to be more feminine now that she had so many males directly responsible to her. She had a big job with big obligations. Friends of his who visited from the monastery said she had done wonders for him. He had put on weight and he was no longer so volatile. He had settled down to being a high school teacher; her big job with IBM obviously posed no ego problems for him.

They had private jokes and sometimes on the street they were caught laughing immoderately. They held hands at these times. They also held hands in restaurants, though not so frequently as on their walks. This was not natural in people married so long; it was probably a cover-up for something.

After eleven endless months they separated. 8 In the two years of their separation he had seven job promotions with his ad agency and she wrote two novels, both of them flops.

He had moved to New York, and by some fluke, or by talent, managed to put together a trendy portfolio. In no time he was making as much money as Kate, and by the end of the two years he was making a great deal more. He was happy and fulfilled, except of course that he missed her. He was a different man now. It was the writing that had made him so miserable. She’d see. Would she take him back? Would she agree to drop the divorce business and give the marriage another try? And, ahem, would IBM be willing to transfer her from her new job in Gaithersburg to a newer one in New York?

She smiled. She would think about it. But he’d better be clear on one thing; she was fiddling around with a novel and she didn’t intend to give it up for anybody. Got that?

The first two novels were mistakes, no doubt about it. She had begun with a description of their meeting in the train station, a nice, tightly written scene, but when read aloud it sounded so like a murder mystery that she decided to turn it into one. She killed herself off in the first chapter and then . . . well, it didn’t work out. Her murders were clumsy and her murderers uninteresting; she was more preoccupied with psychoanalyzing the bereaved than with moving the damned plot along. Five publishers turned it down before she realized that it was a mistake, that she just didn’t know anything about murders and didn’t care much either.

With the second novel she decided to stick to what she knew: life in a convent. She put in the mistress of novices and her more colorful teachers and her eager and ambitious nun friends, all of them meticulously drawn. She had gotten down every revealing gesture, every idiosyncrasy of speech and behavior, and yet somehow nobody came alive. The book was a jumble of real people rather than fictional characters, and it was rejected everywhere.

Her next novel, the one she wouldn’t give up for anybody, would be different. She would write about what she knew as if she didn’t really know it. And she would put herself in it. One thing was certain: whatever it was that she knew and was able to get down on paper, she herself was involved in it.

Meanwhile she would think about dropping the divorce suit. She might even think about requesting a transfer.

9 In Utica, New York, the priest’s mother heard the following established facts at the Lady’s Guild.

1.Katharine Stone had grown up in Utica and moved to Boston when she was five. She was an airline stewardess for seven years and often flew back and forth between Boston and upper New York State. Now that she was separated she had gone back to United. She had been seen in her uniform only last week. In Utica. Many people in Utica knew her well.

2. Kate Stone was a staff editor of Ms. magazine and had formerly been a fashion model. She was six feet tall and beautiful. She dated married men.

3. Katharine Stone was a former nun who grew up in D C. but who lived, at the time of her marriage, in Baltimore. She was from a distinguished family of doctors in which all the men went to Harvard and all the women to Radcliffe. She was, despite this, not the least bit snobbish and was quite content teaching high school English. Her family would never permit a divorce.

4. A friend of the guild’s president’s daughter had gone to Noroton with Kate Stone and there they had both known the Ford girls, Anne and Charlotte. They, the four, had not been close since she entered the convent. Kate Stone, of course. Anne Ford had not entered the convent and neither had Charlotte.

5. Kate Stone had been a dancer until she broke her foot. Since then she had worked for IBM and spent all her free time skiing. She was going to get a divorce and then marry her ski instructor.

The priest’s mother went home and cried until ten, when Kojak came on.

10 In the spring of that year they both got transfers to Boston, where they bought a house and took up where they left off, only a lot better. Kate was involved in writing her novel and her husband was all worked up over a new ad campaign, and so they were happy. They even put in their names to adopt a child.

That summer they drove to Baltimore to visit Kate’s friends in the convent. Kate was all in white and very tanned though it was still only the end of June. He was wearing his white suit and his white shoes, too summery perhaps, just this side of affectation. They knew they looked good.

Kate’s friends came to the visiting parlor in twos and threes. Visits were not so exciting as they had been years ago, before the cloister had moved into the world. These days a visit from outside meant little. Still, everybody was curious to see the couple now that they were reconciled. How long would it last? Kate looked wonderful, but he was putting on weight. He was polite, said very little. Whenever they asked about him, he answered briefly and directed the conversation back to Kate and her friends. There was no telling from the way he acted whether or not he’d take off again for New York. Poor Kate.

At noon some of the sisters went to chapel for midday meditation. Kate and her husband went for a walk around the grounds. Hand in hand they walked down the long slope of grass to the lake. A small dirt path ran around the lake and they followed it for a while, disappearing among the overhanging willows and high swamp grass. There were pine needles everywhere. He wanted to lie down on them but she said no, it was time to turn back. They lay down for a little while anyway.

As they came out from under the trees, they paused and looked across the lake. The sun turned the water green and cast a green reflection on their faces and clothes.

The sisters, coming out of chapel, paused on the cloister walk to gaze out over the lake. The sisters saw the man and woman, their hands joined together, their clothes of dazzling white drenched green in the reflection from the lake. Just those two white figures, joined, against the world of green.

Someone cried out in disbelief.

11 And so she finished the damned book, as she said, and got a publisher, and sold 1600 copies of it. The New York Times said it was a promising start and the New Republic said it was witty and disturbing. Nobody else said anything about it.

What she wrote was, in actuality, a pack of lies about her friends at IBM and about her husband and—in a peculiar way—about herself. The characters numbered thirteen and they were as diverse in their morals and desires and preoccupations as even God or nature would have made them. There was a man who was so insecure he dared to communicate with his employees only when he had worked himself into a rage. There was a man whose sole love was for machines and who had cut himself off from human intercourse completely. There was a housewife whose loneliness and vulnerability drove her into affairs with any man who presented himself. And another who wanted to write poetry and instead was drinking herself to death. And a woman executive who made passionate love to her husband each night, moaning and tearing at his flesh, and then went to the bathroom where she calmly and coldly masturbated before the full-length mirror. They were unscrupulous people and hateful people and pitiful people. And all of them, so her husband recognized, understanding at last, were Kate Stone. In some way, at some moment in the story, they all wore her face.

He was grateful for the book. She existed now, in reality, for him.

She was grateful too. The book was done, some kind of awful duty was discharged, and she felt no desire to write another. All she wanted to do now was to take up skiing once again and to conquer at last the dark fear of hers that plunging down that slope was somehow entering the valley of the shadow of death.

12 It was their anniversary and she gave him a card she had made herself. Inside it she had written, “This river that carries us with it, out of control, out of any control, at least carries us together.”

He did not know what she meant, he never knew what she meant, but it no longer mattered because he had seen her naked face and loved her.

13 Time passed for them. There may have been children, a boy and a girl, adopted. There may have been a dog. There may have been . . . but the snow falls and everything recedes into uncertainty, except that we die and we do not wish to die.

“It’s snowing,” she said.

“And it’s going to snow,” he said.

The light on the snow had been pale purple all afternoon and, though it continued to snow, she insisted nonetheless on going skiing.

They were seen leaving the lodge where everyone was sitting around drinking hot buttered rum by the fireplace and they were seen again later taking the lift to the highest slope. Slowly at first, and then with lightning speed, they descended, two black figures against the white snow, darting across one another’s path, plunging straight down and then veering off at an angle, dodging invisible poles. For a long while people from the lodge watched them, but then the sun dipped behind the trees. Nonetheless they went on ascending and descending that hill.

In the first dark an owl hooted and some winter bird shifted on his perch in the cedar limbs.