(Above: St. Rosa of Lima)
I recently completed the wonderful short story collection, After Rain, by William Trevor – a recognized master of that form. I’ve posted about a couple other favorites from this volume before (Gilbert’s Mother and After Rain), but this other story, Lost Ground, was also among my favorites.
***spoilers follow, but I hope you will want to read this story after reading this post…***
Milton Beeson is a young boy (“not yet sixteen”) in a Protestant family living in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. His family owns an orchard and he is “the hope of the family” since his older brother has proclaimed that if their father leaves the orchard to him he will sell it. One evening, on a trip to examine the upper orchard, Milton encounters a strange woman. Not sure who she is or how she came to be there, he stands somewhat dumbstruck as she approaches him and kisses him before leaving. He says nothing to his family, but the following afternoon he purposefully accepts a chore that will take him to the upper orchard again. Once again he sees the strange woman, who this time speaks to him saying, “I am St. Rosa,” and mysteriously says to him, “Don’t be afraid. When the moment comes. There is too much fear.” Young Milton is appropriately confused by this apparition (he has come to believe that this woman, whose kisses were “dry as a bone,” was “not alive”) and tells no one about his encounters for almost ten months.
The image and memory of the woman continue to haunt him, however, and he eventually visits a local priest to tell him his story and ask him what to do and also to ask, “who is St. Rosa?” The priest is (privately) somewhat taken aback that a saint would chose to appear to a non-Catholic boy and advises Milton to do nothing and tell no one about his encounters. Eventually, Milton cannot keep the knowledge to himself and tells others, even including his family. All his father seems to hear of it, though, is that he “went to a priest’s house?!” and slaps his face twice.
Milton later feels the calling to preach about St. Rosa and begins wandering the countryside and neighboring towns on his bicycle, seeking opportunities to do so. His family is beside themselves and takes increasing drastic steps to prevent his expeditions, deciding that he is no longer “right in the head.” In a country (Northern Ireland) where the opposite camps of Catholics and Protestants often come into violent conflict, the situation deteriorates predictably into tragedy. A sad and troubling story, but I loved the mood that Trevor’s writing settled me into as I read this story. Much is left unanswered at the end, but perhaps this makes the story even better. Highly recommended.
(below: William Trevor)