On the eve of his 40th birthday, Patrick Gallagher, an anthropologist and documentary film producer, retreats to the rivers of Vermont to escape his past, to fly-fish and research the canonization of Father D’Angelo, a priest who performed miracles during the influenza outbreak of 1918.
When Gallagher’s fly-line catches on a submerged body, he is drawn into the investigation of murders linked by the century-old journal of a Sioux woman who claimed to have survived the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Two hours before dawn the boy stirs at racking, wet coughs in the room below. His half-lidded eyes take in the dozens of nailheads showing through the roof planking. The nail heads have conducted the cold inward and stand out frosted and luminescent against the dark wood. Were it not for the coughing, Dylan could imagine himself awakening outside under the stars in a perfect world where there was no such thing as dying.
"Dylan. Dylan, wake up for God's sake!"
The boy rolls over on the straw pallet he uses for a bed. The woodsmoke is overwhelmed by the stale, sweaty stench of fever. Lantern light throws twisting shadows on the chinked walls, the hooked rug, the plain pine table his father had crafted the year before leaving for war, and the daybed where his twin sister lies. Anna has not spoken an intelligible sentence in three days and now is but a tiny, gasping face cradled in the puffery of their mother's prize star quilt.
Hettie McColl wrings out a washcloth into a washbasin, folds it and places it carefully on her daughter's flushed brow. "Mama loves you, Anna," she whispers to a girl who cannot hear.
Dylan looks down at his mother and swallows hard. Overnight, Hettie's lovely countenance has ebbed with each defeat in Anna's fight for life; her eyes are sunken and black; her cheeks have retreated around the bones of her face. Her lips have cracked. But it is her expression that crushes the boy, an air of despair defeating the hope that her love along could conquer this fate.
Dylan thinks of his father, who died the year before during a mustard gas attack in the trenches of France. Instinctively, the boy retreats inward; and he sees the world as if through cold, flowing water,
"Dylan!" Hettie calls again.
"What do you want, Ma?" he asks dully.
"Take the horse and got to town, get the doctor," she orders. "Your sister's in a bad way."
"Ain't no doctor left in Lawton, Ma," he replies. "They all left, 'cause they was scared they was gonna get it, too."
Dylan has heard it said that in the past six months twenty million people around the world have died of the Spanish influenza. More than six hundred thousand in the United States have succumbed, far more than the number of soldiers who have died fighting Huns during the entire war. Lawton is the hardest-hit town in Vermont. Dylan has lost an aunt, his maternal grandmother and two cousins to the spiking fevers, splitting headaches and convulsions. Now his sister is following.
A friend at school said the end comes when the lungs fill with liquids. Anna will drown in her bed. And then his mother will get it and Dylan fears he will be left alone to face the fever himself. The boy wants nothing more than to pull the blankets over his head and hide from the horror that swirls in the room around him.
"Then go get the priest," his mother cries in desperation. "Anna don't have much longer."
The boy has heard stories about the priest and he has a sudden resurgence of faith that Anna will live. He tugs on leather boots, parka, cap and mittens and races out into the night. He bridles his father's chestnut mare. He mounts bareback and kicks her out into the storm. It is nearly dawn by the time Dylan makes it down out of the snow line to town and to the brick rectory next to St. Edwards Catholic Church. The wind has quickened, blowing wet leaves through a freezing rain. Dylan stumbles to the front door of the rectory and pounds until, at last, a light comes on in the front hall and an elderly woman in a flannel robe answers.
"Land's sake, boy, what is it?" she scolds. "It's not even the crack of dawn with you smashing the door and the good father lying upstairs so ill."
"My sister's got the fever," he blurts. "My ma sent me for the priest folks say can stop it."
"The woman scowls and shakes a fat finger. "Didn't I say he's--"
Before she can finish, Dylan hears a deeper, hoarser version of his sister's slurried cough behind the woman. He sees a tall, exhausted man. The priest puts Dylan in mind of a heron on a spring pond: stooped, gaunt, fishing-hungering and yellow-eyed. An oval of damp silver hair fringes a bald head so drawn down of flesh it seems a skull. Dylan takes a step back from the apparition.
The priest coughs again before extending his palm. "What is it, my son?"
"My sister," he stammers. "Momma said you been helping some folks with the fever and we done lost out Gammy and my Auntie Kate already…Momma hoped--"
"-I'll come," the priest says.
The elderly woman grabs his elbow. "Father D'Angelo, you're sick enough yourself and the weather…"
"I am not important," the priest replies thickly. "The girl is. Help me get prepared." Dylan lets the priest ride the horse. He leads the mare up through the rain and into the snow falling at the altitude of the cabin. Father D'Angelo says little during the hour march and what support he gives the boy is soon drowned out by the ravages of his coughing. Twice Dylan looks back at the priest, who stares off as if into a bottomless valley. Twice the boy shivers and looks away.
His mother waits at the door with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Hettie calls out in a voice of strangled disbelief as the priest struggles down off the mare. "It's got her, Father, don't bother hurrying."
"Does she breath," the priest asks.
"Barely," Hettie says.
"Then there's hope," the priest says. He comes up the stairs and removes his hat.
Dylan's mother's hand flies to her mouth because his face reminds her of a figure that has visited her at night. Again and again in her dreams, Hettie has found herself on a battlefield of trenches, smoke and mud. The man with D'Angelo's face is a soldier, a deserter who has been captured and returned to the battlefield only to find his unit wiped out. One of the dead men in the trench is Hettie's husband. In her dreams, the deserter touches her husband's face and begins to cry. As she watches, the deserter's misery turns to rage and he picks up his gun, leaps the barbed wire atop the trench and charges across no-man's-land toward the enemy, bayonet thrust before him.
If D'Angelo catches Hettie's terrified reaction to his appearance, he does not show it, but pushes past her into the room and toward the kitchen, straightaway to the daybed. He shucks off his black, long coat and kneels by the girl, now wide-eyed and arching in convulsion. The priest draws back the quilt and unbuttons her flannel nightgown from the neck toward her navel. From one pocket he brings forth a small bone and from another a crucifix encrusted with a red jewel where the crossbar meets the spar. He lays the cross, the bone and his hands on the girl's heaving chest, then bows his head in prayer.
Dylan watches it all as if it were winter still and he an observer from within a snow tunnel. Far away he hears his mother sobbing. For the longest time there is just the priest and his sister at the end of a glistening white tube and his mother's muffled weeping.
Suddenly Anna's torso contorts in spasm. She arches. Her eyes roll up in her head. Her tongue dances wildly outside her mouth. A moan rattles up from deep within her.
"Oh, God, no!" Hettie cries. She throws her hands over her face and crumples against the doorjamb.
The priest hunches over Anna. His fingers curl and quiver. His jaw moves feverishly, but he speaks not. His shoulders quiver like a wrestler's in a clinch. An icy tongue flickers through Dylan's chest.
Now the priest himself is enveloped in a fit of trembling and sweating. He lets loose a low-toned wail. Then brackish yellow liquid the consistency of weak oatmeal fountains from Anna's mouth. And when it does, the priest slips one hand under the girl's back and rolls her onto her side so that she will not aspirate the gruel. The convulsions and expulsions continue for several minutes, during which Dylan, frozen out of time and out of place, glimpses a nameless site between two worlds.
As suddenly as it began, Anna's bridging spasm subsides and she settles peacefully back to the daybed. There is a moment of absolute stillness on his sister's part. No breathing. No coughing. No moaning. An isolating silence.
Then, joyously, Anna takes in air, shallow at first, but without labor; and then stronger, deeper and dry. Her eyes flutter and open, float cross-eyed and fearful at the unfamiliar sight of the sallow priest praying over her; and then her head turns toward Dylan and she smiles warmly at knowing him; and then they continue past him toward the door.
"Momma?" Anna whispers.
Hettie lifts her head in wonder. She races past the boy. Father D'Angelo stands unsteadily to let the woman embrace her daughter. The cold white tunnel around Dylan melts. Dylan walks toward the priest, hand extended, wanting to touch him, as if that touch alone can heal the wounds of the past year.
But before he can reach him, Father D'Angelo trips and glances off the kitchen table before landing on his knees. The moist coughing that ensues twists his body until he collapses facedown on the hooked rug.
Dylan and his mother turn the priest over and try to get him sitting up. Father D'Angelo's forehead burns with fever, but his fingers are chill to the touch. His body twitches. Dylan feels the cold reach the priest's wrist and move toward his elbow. There is wretched fear in Father D'Angelo's eyes and the boy knows the priest is dying. Dylan takes the priest's bony hand. "Don't you fret none," he soothes. "You done saved my sister. You're going to the sweet hereafter."
At that the priest's terror becomes complete. He shakes his head violently, fights for air and croaks out words that the boy misses.
"What's that, Father?" Dylan asks, holding his ear right next to the priest's mouth.
D'Angelo struggles against the fluid filling his chest. He manages one last lungfull of air, then gasps to Dylan, "Pray for me boy, I am one of the damned!"
“An ingenious story . . .crackling good.”
-Manchester Journal Inquirer