EMBRACED BY STONE, STEEPED IN SILENCE, I SAT at the high window as the third day of the week surrendered to the fourth. The river of night rolled on, indifferent to the calendar.
I hoped to witness that magical moment when the snow began to fall in earnest. Earlier the sky had shed a few flakes, then nothing more. The pending storm would not be rushed.
The room was illuminated only by a fat candle in an amber glass on the corner desk. Each time a draft found the flame, melting light buttered the limestone walls and waves of fluid shadows oiled the corners.
Most nights, I find lamplight too bright. And when I’m writing, the only glow is the computer screen, dialed down to gray text on a navy-blue field.
Without a silvering of light, the window did not reflect my face. I had a clear view of the night beyond the panes.
Living in a monastery, even as a guest rather than as a monk, you have more opportunities than you might have elsewhere to see the world as it is, instead of through the shadow that you cast upon it.
St. Bartholomew’s Abbey was surrounded by the vastness of the Sierra Nevada, on the California side of the border. The primeval forests that clothed the rising slopes were themselves cloaked in darkness.
From this third-floor window, I could see only part of the deep front yard and the blacktop lane that cleaved it. Four low lampposts with bell-shaped caps focused light in round pale pools.
The guesthouse is in the northwest wing of the abbey. The ground floor features parlors. Private rooms occupy the higher and the highest floors.
As I watched in anticipation of the storm, a whiteness that was not snow drifted across the yard, out of darkness, into lamplight.
The abbey has one dog, a 110-pound German-shepherd mix, perhaps part Labrador retriever. He is entirely white and moves with the grace of fog. His name is Boo.
My name is Odd Thomas. My dysfunctional parents claim a mistake was made on the birth certificate, that Todd was the wanted name. Yet they have never called me Todd.
In twenty-one years, I have not considered changing to Todd. The bizarre course of my life suggests that Odd is more suited to me, whether it was conferred by my parents with intention or by fate.
Below, Boo stopped in the middle of the pavement and gazed along the lane as it dwindled and descended into darkness.
Mountains are not entirely slopes. Sometimes the rising land takes a rest. The abbey stands on a high meadow, facing north.
Judging by his pricked ears and lifted head, Boo perceived a visitor approaching. He held his tail low.
I could not discern the state of his hackles, but his tense posture suggested that they were raised.
From dusk the driveway lamps burn until dawn ascends. The monks of St. Bart’s believe that night visitors, no matter how seldom they come, must be welcomed with light.
The dog stood motionless for a while, then shifted his attention toward the lawn to the right of the blacktop. His head lowered. His ears flattened against his skull.
For a moment, I could not see the cause of Boo’s alarm. Then … into view came a shape as elusive as a night shadow floating across black water. The figure passed near enough to one of the lampposts to be briefly revealed.
Even in daylight, this was a visitor of whom only the dog and I could have been aware.
I see dead people, spirits of the departed who, each for his own reason, will not move on from this world. Some are drawn to me for justice, if they were murdered, or for comfort, or for companionship; others seek me out for motives that I cannot always understand.
This complicates my life.
I am not asking for your sympathy. We all have our problems, and yours seem as important to you as mine seem to me.
Perhaps you have a ninety-minute commute every morning, on freeways clogged with traffic, your progress hampered by impatient and incompetent motorists, some of them angry specimens with middle fingers muscular from frequent use. Imagine, however, how much more stressful your morning might be if in the passenger seat was a young man with a ghastly ax wound in his head and if in the backseat an elderly woman, strangled by her husband, sat pop-eyed and purple-faced.
The dead don’t talk. I don’t know why. And an ax-chopped spirit will not bleed on your upholstery.
Nevertheless, an entourage of the recently dead is disconcerting and generally not conducive to an upbeat mood.
The visitor on the lawn was not an ordinary ghost, maybe not a ghost at all. In addition to the lingering spirits of the dead, I see one other kind of supernatural entity. I call them bodachs.
They are ink-black, fluid in shape, with no more substance than shadows. Soundless, as big as an average man, they frequently slink like cats, low to the ground.
The one on the abbey lawn moved upright: black and featureless, yet suggestive of something half man, half wolf. Sleek, sinuous, and sinister.
The grass was not disturbed by its passage. Had it been crossing water, it would not have left a single ripple in its wake.
In the folklore of the British Isles, a bodach is a vile beast that slithers down chimneys at night and carries off children who misbehave. Rather like Inland Revenue agents.
What I see are neither bodachs nor tax collectors. They carry away neither misbehaving children nor adult miscreants. But I have seen them enter houses by chimneys — by keyholes, chinks in window frames, as protean as smoke — and I have no better name for them.
Their infrequent appearance is always reason for alarm. These creatures seem to be spiritual vampires with knowledge of the future. They are drawn to places where violence or fiery catastrophe is destined to erupt, as if they feed on human suffering.
Although he was a brave dog, with good reason to be brave, Boo shrank from the passing apparition. His black lips peeled back from his white fangs.
The phantom paused as if to taunt the dog. Bodachs seem to know that some animals can see them.
I don’t think they know that I can see them, too. If they did know, I believe that they would show me less mercy than mad mullahs show their victims when in a mood to behead and dismember.
At the sight of this one, my first impulse was to shrink from the window and seek communion with the dust bunnies under my bed. My second impulse was to pee.
Resisting both cowardice and the call of the bladder, I raced from my quarters into the hallway. The third floor of the guesthouse offers two small suites. The other currently had no occupant.
On the second floor, the glowering Russian was no doubt scowling in his sleep. The solid construction of the abbey would not translate my footfalls into his dreams.
The guesthouse has an enclosed spiral staircase, stone walls encircling granite steps. The treads alternate between black and white, making me think of harlequins and piano keys, and of a treacly old song by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
Although stone stairs are unforgiving and the black-and-white pattern can be disorienting, I plunged toward the ground floor, risking damage to the granite if I fell and struck it with my head.
Sixteen months ago, I lost what was most precious to me and found my world in ruins; nevertheless, I am not usually reckless. I have less to live for than I once did, but my life still has purpose, and I struggle to find meaning in the days.
Leaving the stairs in the condition that I found them, I hurried across the main parlor, where only a night lamp with a beaded shade relieved the gloom. I pushed through a heavy oak door with a stained-glass window, and saw my breath plume before me in the winter night.
The guesthouse cloister surrounds a courtyard with a reflecting pool and a white marble statue of St. Bartholomew. He is arguably the least known of the twelve apostles.
Here depicted, a solemn St. Bartholomew stands with his right hand over his heart, left arm extended. In his upturned palm is what appears to be a pumpkin but might be a related variety of squash.
The symbolic meaning of the squash eludes me.
At this time of year, the pool was drained, and no scent of wet limestone rose from it, as in warmer days. I detected, instead, the faintest smell of ozone, as after lightning in a spring rain, and wondered about it, but kept moving.
I followed the colonnade to the door of the guesthouse receiving room, went inside, crossed that shadowy chamber, and returned to the December night through the front door of the abbey.
Our white shepherd mix, Boo, standing on the driveway, as I had last seen him from my third-floor window, turned his head to look at me as I descended the broad front steps. His stare was clear and blue, with none of the eerie eyeshine common to animals at night.
Without benefit of stars or moon, most of the expansive yard receded into murk. If a bodach lurked out there, I could not see it.
“Boo, where’s it gone?” I whispered.
He didn’t answer. My life is strange but not so strange that it includes talking canines.
With wary purpose, however, the dog moved off the driveway, onto the yard. He headed east, past the formidable abbey, which appears almost to have been carved from a single great mass of rock, so tight are the mortar joints between its stones.
No wind ruffled the night, and darkness hung with folded wings.
Seared brown by winter, the trampled grass crunched underfoot. Boo moved with far greater stealth than I could manage.
Feeling watched, I looked up at the windows, but I didn’t see anyone, no light other than the faint flicker of the candle in my quarters, no pale face peering through a dark pane.
I had rushed out of the guest wing wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. December stropped its teeth on my bare arms.
We proceeded eastward alongside the church, which is part of the abbey, not a separate building.
A sanctuary lamp glows perpetually, but it isn’t sufficient to fire the colorful stained glass. Through window after window, that dim light seemed to watch us as though it were the single sullen eye of something in a bloody mood.
Having led me to the northeast corner of the building, Boo turned south, past the back of the church. We continued to the wing of the abbey that, on the first floor, contains the novitiate.
Not yet having taken their vows, the novices slept here. Of the five who were currently taking instruction, I liked and trusted four.
Suddenly Boo abandoned his cautious pace. He ran due east, away from the abbey, and I pursued him.
As the yard relented to the untamed meadow, grass lashed my knees. Soon the first heavy snow would compact these tall dry blades.
For a few hundred feet, the land sloped gently before leveling off, whereupon the knee-high grass became a mown lawn again. Before us in the gloom rose St. Bartholomew’s School.
In part the word school is a euphemism. These students are unwanted elsewhere, and the school is also their home, perhaps the only one that some of them will ever have.
This is the original abbey, internally remodeled but still an impressive pile of stone. The structure also houses the convent in which reside the nuns who teach the students and care for them.
Behind the former abbey, the forest bristled against the storm-ready sky, black boughs sheltering blind pathways that led far into the lonely dark.
Evidently tracking the bodach, the dog went up the broad steps to the front door of the school, and through.
Few doors in the abbey are ever locked. But for the protection of the students, the school is routinely secured.
Only the abbot, the mother superior, and I possess a universal key that allows admittance everywhere. No guest before me has been entrusted with such access.
I take no pride in their trust. It is a burden. In my pocket, the simple key sometimes feels like an iron fate drawn to a lodestone deep in the earth.
The key allows me quickly to seek Brother Constantine, the dead monk, when he manifests with a ringing of bells in one of the towers or with some other kind of cacophony elsewhere.
In Pico Mundo, the desert town in which I had lived for most of my time on earth, the spirits of many men and women linger. But here we have just Brother Constantine, who is no less disturbing than all of Pico Mundo’s dead combined, one ghost but one too many.
With a bodach on the prowl, Brother Constantine was the least of my worries.
Shivering, I used my key, and hinges squeaked, and I followed the dog into the school.
Two night-lights staved off total gloom in the reception lounge. Multiple arrangements of sofas and armchairs suggested a hotel lobby.
I hurried past the unmanned information desk and went through a swinging door into a corridor lighted by an emergency lamp and red EXIT signs.
On this ground floor were the classrooms, the rehabilitation clinic, the infirmary, the kitchen, and the communal dining room. Those sisters with a culinary gift were not yet preparing breakfast. Silence ruled these spaces, as it would for hours yet.
I climbed the south stairs and found Boo waiting for me on the second-floor landing. He remained in a solemn mood. His tail did not wag, and he did not grin in greeting.
Two long and two short hallways formed a rectangle, serving the student quarters. The residents roomed in pairs.
At the southeast and northwest junctions of the corridors were nurses’ stations, both of which I could see when I came out of the stairs in the southwest corner of the building.
At the northwest station, a nun sat at the counter, reading. From this distance, I could not identify her.
Besides, her face was half concealed by a wimple. These are not modern nuns who dress like meter maids. These sisters wear old-style habits that can make them seem as formidable as warriors in armor.
The southeast station was deserted. The nun on duty must have been making her rounds or tending to one of her charges.
When Boo padded away to the right, heading southeast, I followed without calling to the reading nun. By the time that I had taken three steps, she was out of my line of sight.
Many of the sisters have nursing degrees, but they strive to make the second floor feel more like a cozy dormitory than like a hospital. With Christmas twenty days away, the halls were hung with garlands of fake evergreen boughs and festooned with genuine tinsel.
In respect of the sleeping students, the lights had been dimmed. The tinsel glimmered only here and there, and mostly darkled into tremulous shadows.
The doors of some student rooms were closed, others ajar. They featured not just numbers but also names.
Halfway between the stairwell and the nurses’ station, Boo paused at Room 32, where the door was not fully closed. On block-lettered plaques were the names ANNAMARIE and JUSTINE.
This time I was close enough to Boo to see that indeed his hackles were raised.
The dog passed inside, but propriety made me hesitate. I ought to have asked a nun to accompany me into these students’ quarters.
But I wanted to avoid having to explain bodachs to her. More important, I didn’t want to risk being overheard by one of those malevolent spirits as I was talking about them.
Officially, only one person at the abbey and one at the convent know about my gift — if in fact it is a gift rather than a curse. Sister Angela, the mother superior, shares my secret, as does Father Bernard, the abbot.