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Man dramatically standing, in a dunce cap

Dunts, by Fr. Norm and his colleague Mark Mitchell. Chapter 1.

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IT IS THE hero thing again, the big stakes. There will be no counting and measuring of wounds, no admission of personal shadows, no sobriety. Peter Quince has us set for the Iron Sea west of Scotland in October. He has picked the boat and we are to settle our affairs and write our wills and be at the Winter Helm Rock Lighthouse with one canvas duffel each, on Halloween Night. And of course we do it, every last one of us.

None of us knows the police and security agencies of five countries are after him. And apparently Peter Quince does not care enough to change his plans. Or, in retrospect, it is that pursuit that led him to conceive this voyage in the first place.

At ten thirty at night I stand alone at the mouth of the path leading past the lighthouse. I listen to the waves hitting the black cliffs below. Already three times I have stepped over the corroded chain with the faded danger do not venture sign to go to the edge and look down the ten spiral flights of corrugated iron steps. Wikipedia claims it was built of surplus lighthouse staircase, but its span drops deeper than any lighthouse I have seen. Below, at the jetty, four rowboats ride the tops of the rolling swells like potato chips. A quarter mile offshore anchored by three lines in the gale is a black Chinese junk. Not a light.

At ten thirty-one, an army ambulance approaches from the road connecting the mainland. Over the wind I can hear the engine torquing badly. When it gets closer this becomes a chorus of male voices, drunk. They’re singing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, making up the words. The ambulance pulls in next to my rental car. I pick up my duffel and go around to the doors in the back and pull them open. There is Peter Quince’s father and Peter Quince’s attorney and Peter Quince’s doctoral advisor. They each hold a dixie cup and on the floor lie several boxboitels, empty. The peach aroma combines with smell of antiseptic. Peter Quince’s father laughs and throws his cup at me. “Ready to die?” he says.

“No.” I pull them out one by one, though with his father I mostly try to stand out of the way. He’s a big man. As they reel in the dark to piss on the side of my car I wonder how I’ll get them down the steps to the boats.

I hand the driver the envelope of American bills. She counts them. She is the kind of woman you see on the arm of an actor who’s hit it big. The British uniform she wears is two sizes too small and her black hair is cut like a piece of expensive American Indian pottery. Without looking at me or the side-mirrors she backs out and then drives off down the peninsula. Peter Quince’s father comes back and musses my hair with a wet hand.

I show them to the path. A hammering gust drives my head into my shoulders, and when I turn around to see how they are, they have stopped to admire the lighthouse, and Peter Quince’s advisor is waving his arms in the cast the beam would take if the lighthouse still were in service. I shout to them to come on and Peter Quince’s father points to the three duffels back on the asphalt and looks at me. When I bring the last bag to the observation platform at the end of the path the three men are chuckling and swearing, shaking their heads. They are passing a flask. Peter Quince’s attorney looks at me and remembers his manners. “Pepper vodka?” The wind through the spaces between the steps makes a sound like a choir jumping from a bridge. I try the stairs and my first steps send a shudder down the length of the structure, and some of the bolts fastening it to the rock poke their heads from their holes. Peter Quince’s father shouts down to me, “House of cards.” and laughs. I tighten my grip on the slick worm of piping that serves as the outer handrail and wonder how it will be when I’ve my heavy duffel strapped to my back.

I go back up and remove the nylon line from my bag and tie one end to my waist. I tell them I will go down first. I look around for the other, and Peter Quince’s advisor has tied it in a kind of slip-knot to a half-inch trunk of heather. I retie it to a steel ring in the concrete pedestal that once held the telescope. As I go down I play out the line outside of the spiral trying to estimate when it will run out — around the eighth flight down I guess. If the stairs goes the best I can do is try to swing free. Beneath us I hear a bam, followed by crackling and popping. One of the rowboats has broke loosen and turned turtle, and is being urged between two rock pillars. Each new breaker beats on it like a hammer on a piton. I hope this is not the boat with the engine.

On my fifth round down, the structure jounces violently. I wrap my arms around the spiral’s center pole and look down, filled with a crazy certainty that the other boats havebroken free and rammed the structure. But no. I look up and Peter Quince’s father, attorney, and doctoral advisor are coming down the steps in a tight group. Several objects I take for long rocks whiz down past me, and one hits the steps and bounces. It is one of the rockbolts. I shout for them to go back and am still shouting when they come down around to my flight arguing about grouse guns. They don’t break stride as they shoo me on down ahead of them. We reach the bottom. I show them the fifteen or twenty bolts lying around on the rocks and the jetty. Some of the bolts are shiny where they were sheared off. Peter Quince’s father chews the inside of his lip distractedly and his blue eyes alight on me as if I had just appeared on stage. “Hadn’t you better go get the duffels?” When I get back down with the last bag the three men are standing at the end of the jetty trying to light cigars. Peter Quince’s attorney has produced hurricane matches and he gets Peter Quince’s father’s cigar going, and in no time at all the wind fans it into a fierce red glowworm. The jetty is a concrete block the size of a double bungalow. The boats bounce alongside it five to twenty feet below us. In the pewter light that has no source I can make out the reddish one has lost its oars and the bluish one is three-quarters swamped. The greenish one has a little skull-without-crossbones pennant flying from a pole at its bow, and at its stern is a canvas-shrouded bump. An engine. I haul at its painter rope and almost am pulled in. Peter Quince’s father behind me takes hold the end of the line, threads it through a boatring, and keeps it taut as the boat rises and falls. At the crests I drop in the duffels one by one. Then Peter Quince’s attorney leaps off the jetty. He lands on the duffels and rolls toward the bow seat and holds up the flask in triumph as the boat ditches into the trough. Peter Quince’s advisor laughs and steps off the jetty before the boat has begun to rise, and he flutters his arms like a bird, and I wince as he hits the middle seat feet first. He tumbles into the stern and when the boat rises I see his right ankle clenched in toward the shin in a way that settles all bets whether clenching is a proper function of ankles. While I’m staring, Peter Quince’s father shoves me off. I land on the duffels and immediately he lands on my legs.

I let them tend Peter Quince’s advisor’s ankle. Apparently he is in a bad way and they are making a splint. They have given him the flare pistol to play with. The engine starts on my first pull. As we pull away from the jetty I look back at shore and the spiral staircase seems to turn to look down at us over its shoulder as we leave. It cries like the biggest baby in the world, and I realize it is coming down. There is the sound of what it would be like if there had never been a Henry Ford and instead we now had whole factories of blacksmiths, and Peter’s advisor fires a flare past my head at the rock wall, and the redglow star falls into the core of a centripetaling heap of bending and crumbling fragments. I call out for the flask and pretend to take a drink and put it in my jacket pocket.I steer diagonally into the waves, making for the junk on five-minute tacks. Periodically above the waves I can see the boat for a second or two. Not a single light aboard. Peter Quince’s father, sprawled across the duffels, sits up on one elbow, just as the black boat appears. He regards it and turns to look at me. “I suppose it’s the right Chinese junk,” he says doubtfully.

The half moon comes down out of the clouds. When the junk reappears I can see the decks are deserted. Hanging down from the boat’s leeward starboard rail is one of those rope nets troops use to climb down into landing craft. As I bring us in on the last switchback into the wind, closing, Peter’s attorney has out the boat hook. He snags the rope net and as Peter’s father runs the painter through it, I look up. Peter Quince, in relief against the moon sky, stands at the rail looking down at us. I cannot see his face. He does not stand with his normal bearing. He leans on the rail, and despite the big bomber’s, his shoulders look drawn up, and in. Peter’s father, as we tie Peter’s advisor to his back, begins haranguing his son about all the arrangements, a chartered jet with non-English-speaking pilot and motion-sick steward and wretched bagel breakfast baps filled with I still don’t know what kind of cold satanic offerings, and that fuck-bastard of a ride from the airport in the back of an ambulance with frigid ass-pummeling nickel seats and no windows and smell’o’death in little potpourri jars all around, oh and your ten-story collapsing accordion mousetrap, no? And finally, finally, your delight of a treat of an experience of the uneasiness the dead must feel when your Styx oarsman loses his bearings and steers this way and that — tell me, tell me all this was not planned, Peter, that this was not some elaborate spasm of performance art you commissioned for my sixty-seventh birthday. And Peter’s attorney and advisor both turn to him in surprise and say, “I didn’t know it was your birthday.”

Peter Quince makes no retort, no rejoinder.

We all four come up top over the rail. Peter has stepped back to the middle of the deck. He turns to the focsile where someone is just coming up the ladder. It is Peter Quince. I look back at the man standing before us and now he is like a student’s rendering of Quince: his face younger, too soft, and his eyebrows over dark. His hair’s natural part is on the wrong side. I see his head lift off his shoulders at the same moment I hear the gun. I think I sit down simultaneous with the body falling.Peter’s father takes a step forward and holds both hands out toward the body, as if his first impulse were benediction. He looks toward Peter, who has arrived on deck, and is waiting for some word or explanation as Peter swivels the gun toward us, and I recognize the Slav elephant gun and think, that’s why you didn’t hear the head fall. Peter fires again. His father hops backward like a marionette and tips head first over the rail and is gone. Peter fires again and his advisor is flipped off his feet into his attorney and I see the shell has taken care of both. I hear a tiny click of a trigger hammer striking a jammed magazine. I get on my feet. Peter tosses the shotgun into the darkness like a javelin and pulls out a revolver from a shoulder holster and raises it and shoots me in the heart. I sit down and look at the moon. I feel a trickle down my belly, and then I smell pepper vodka. I put my hand to my chest and touch the rent in the flask.I hear a small engine start up. Over the headless body stands Peter Quince. With the prop end of an outboard motor he is removing the hands. “Stop it,” I say. He does not hear me over the sound of his motor. I get to my feet and stumble toward him. “Stop it. That’s enough.” He startles to see me and swings up the spinning prop toward my face. I feel its wind and I spin and then sprint and jump over the rail. The cold does nothing to break the shock. I cannot find the surface. At the same time the bullets do not find me. When I do come up finally I see Peter Quince’s father floating on a wave ahead of me. I swim up to him. I’m shivering, and then after a while I’m not. It is hard to think. No sound of the waves on the rocks yet. I try to tie one of my wrists to Peter’s father’s necktie. I think I hear an outboard motor. I do. It grows louder.

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