C.A. Rodriguez's elegiac St. PETER'S WOOD is a novel about wonder lost - and in life's twilight, miraculously found again. Not the exploding, spectacular kind of wonder, but wonder of a small, even unobtrusive, personal size. The kind frequently buried, "in the ore of the ordinary."
And so Dennis Haiworthy, the aging hero of her quasi-Victorian adventure, seems at first only a vaguely sad and anxious man, a man of no particular consequence. But when, after a brush with death and a chance meeting with a mysterious woman in a snow-enshrouded forest, Haiworthy discovers that he has the ability to fly... well, some things change.
And some, we discover, do not.
With her deft and unfailingly elegant feel for language, scholar-translator Rodriguez controls every step of her carefully-paced narrative, guiding us at leisure along the path of a story that's not at all what we expect it to be. She has said that she feels the word that best defines her work is "uneasy," but the reader is more likely to come away with that strong sense of underlying order that any highly crafted art will inevitably convey.
St. PETER'S WOOD is a love story about many kinds of love. But one of them is certainly the love of story itself, and the peculiar wonder of having no idea at all what may happen.
Excerpt from St. Peter's Wood
In a clean, cold twilight of deep winter, I was walking with the dogs in St. Peter's Wood. Behind us the low sky was softly unrolling over the treetops another night of snowfall. Before us, gated by the black bars and arches of the trees, the west was split open to receive the refulgence - scarlet and gold - of a setting sun, and you could see heaven. There was no one. Only the dogs and myself. And the forest in winter is quite colorless.
There are times in the deep winter when I feel that I cannot bear it, that I will never live to see spring come again. And what if it does come after all? It will only be followed by a summer that is too hot, and incomplete, and the leaves will fall and it will be long winter again.
And then, from time to time, there are moments of the purest hope. As if the cruelty of snow and cold and bareness and heavy darkness stripped earth down to its silences. Then and only then we can hear things we have never heard before. I remember quite explicitly that this is what I was thinking. It was so quiet in the woods that I could hear the rustling of my own skirts, the small slish of now one, now the other shoulder against the lining of my cloak (which I felt, perhaps, as much as heard), the crunch of each step, and the occasional snort from one of the dogs.
It was cold enough that our breathing was visible upon the air, like brief words. We kept to the small path.
The dogs, Salvation and Ramon, are tall and very narrow, with long, sensitive, intelligent faces and long paws. They did not wander much, as most dogs do, but the three of us walked essentially together. I can close my eyes and I can smell again the silvery winter air, and feel the light around me. And the presence of the dogs.
Sally was a little bit ahead and on my left hand. She lifted her fine chin and stopped, sniffing the still air and listening. She has long fur, lank and ghost gray. Ramon, with that curious gathering gait that four-legged creatures have, so that a step takes four steps, came up to her and raised his head likewise. He has a melancholy face, curiously beautiful, with dark brows, high and handsome cheekbones, and a black chin with a tuft. His coat is thick and short, black and brown. Although his back is as high as my hip and his shoulders and haunches are very strong, there is an air of such gentleness about him that I am often moved by it unexpectedly and in ways I cannot explain. No, no. He is not a "good dog." It is something very different.
Sally turned to look at him. And he responded and nodded.
"What is it?" I said, as if they could reply, which, of course, they cannot.
Sally regarded me with a look of softly dawning delight and indicated with her glance the direction of the road - not visible, but only some quarter mile distant through the trees. She turned again to Ramon, as if to explain.
"What is it?" I said again. "It's getting late, Sally, and I'm sure it's going to snow."
But she was already pivoting in a preparatory sort of way as she made her case to Ramon, and in only a moment threw me back a beckoning glance as she swung away and trotted off into the trees. There would be no difficulty following her; her foot prints sketched the directions into the sunset-glittering snow.
Ramon as much as shrugged and smiled. He trusted her judgement - as he had reason to do. Being human, I sometimes feel a little jealous of my authority. And yet the dogs are never disrespectful or defiant. They are only what they are. And autonomous. In truth, something more than autonomous. Ramon pushed his cheek gently against my gloved hand and then lifted his head in the direction Salvation had gone. I do not always understand them, but these were simple communications. "Come," he said. We followed Salvation's path.
As we approached the darkening road I became aware of the hoofbeats of a single horse approaching from the direction of the distant town. Sally had paused to join us and we emerged from the trees at almost the same moment that horse and rider came into sight. The horse was a bold roan mare with one white ankle - a hireling by her tack, and her horseman not a particularly experienced one. She started at our appearance and reared up. The horseman shouted, barely able to keep his seat and control of his mount. But I noted that he cursed only mildly, all things considered. As he endeavored to calm the animal he called her by her name, which was Story. I though that was interesting.
In the dusk I could perceive at first of the man only a low-crowned hat, long coat, well wool-muffled throat. The dogs sat down on either side of me and remained in postures of unthreatening stillness. I am not particularly good with animals, and so I did not attempt to contribute to the calming of the horse, which was accomplished at length with only small difficulty and without my assistance.
As soon as she appeared to be collected and perhaps receptive, Ramon first and then Sally approached the mare in a courteous and conversational manner. The beast cocked her head and became, it seemed, attentive. Thus I could do no less than be courteous to the rider.
"Please forgive us, sir," I said. "We didn't mean to startle you."
"Yes, of course... No," he replied.
I observed then that he was a slender middle-aged man with pointed features and an anxious face. My husband was an anxious man, too, I think, but he hid his anxiety in bravado and intermittent bullying. I detest bullying. The rider patted his horse's neck with some kindness, even though she had ceased to be troublesome and now was interested in Sally and Ramon.
"No...it's just as well. It's all right. I haven't seen anyone for miles, and I'm not familiar with these roads. There, Story, all right now. What kind of dogs are they? They're very usual."
"I don't really know," I said. "Where are you going exactly, if I may inquire?"
"Twembly. I'd hoped to be there by nightfall. Is it far?"
"Twembly," I said. "Ah, no. This isn't the road to Twembly. I'd rather suspected you'd made a wrong turn."
Sally came over to me and allowed me to scratch her long, silky ears. Her face is so sensitive sometimes it is almost translucent, with her ghostly coloring and great, dark eyes. She was very pleased now. Seraphically pleased. I cannot always read her, but I had the sense that I knew at this point what she was up to. I was not entirely sure, however, that I knew why.
"Oh dear," said the rider. "That's not good. Bad patch. How do I go from here, then? How far is it?"
"Well, once you pick up the right road about a mile back - there's a stream right by the turnoff with a little waterfall - it's only two, three miles. But it's almost dark and we're in for snow very soon." I indicated the clotted violet bank that was descending inexorably in the west, closing up the weakened incandescence of the sky. "I think it would be unwise for you to try to make Twembly tonight. It will very soon be snowing and snowing heavily, I'm afraid."
The rider, for all his anxious demeanor, frowned in the direction he had come and took and let out a deep breath of determination that left a sizable puff of frozen moisture on the air for a moment.
"You're welcome to shelter for the night with us if you like," I said. "We're just a little ways back this way into the woods."
The horseman looked at me in a kind of deliberative suspension, but briefly.
"It's kind of you, madam, and I thank you. It's very kind. But I am expected at Twembly on business. About a mile back, a little waterfall, and I turn right, is that correct? And then two or three miles?"
Sally pranced for my attention and Ramon raised his eyebrows at the mare, who shook her bridle.
"I strongly advise you to accept my offer, sir. You missed the turn when it was more visible than it will be now."
"You're right, of course," he said. "But it's my own fault that I didn't account for delays. And it's my responsibility to be there." He pulled his horse about saying, "Thank you," and "good evening," and some other courtesy.
Sally glanced at me and I nodded. As horse and rider galloped purposefully back the way they had come, Salvation followed them. Ramon and I made our way back through the trees to the house in St. Peter's Wood, where I prepared as best I could for an overnight guest.
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