Brian J. Doyle | The Lutheran minister’s daughter

brian j doyle with a borderHer name was Fairly, which she also spelled Fairlee and Fairli, and which people misspelled in every sort of way, like Fairley and Farley and Fairy and Ferry, and of course her brothers called her every sort of mangle of her name, Furry and Flurry and Fatty and Flatty, mostly from affection but sometimes not; one of the first things she learned as a child was that even people who love you are more cruel than they know. Even her mom made edgy remarks, a little, as Fairly grew absolutely stunningly beautiful like her mom used to be; and her dad, too, although he swore by the Word of the Lord, which Word, if you boil the whole New Testament down to a single word, would be Love, which is an idea that doesn’t seem to include snide remarks to your beloved daughter but it seemed that he could not help himself, occasionally, because he was deeply worried that her beauty would be a curse, although he felt his flaw and regretted it.

Her dad had certain firm concepts of how things were supposed to be religiouswise, and Fairly did not often fit those concepts, and so there were long weeks when they were tense and did not speak to each other, and he would go off fishing and hunting with the sons, or on trips of preaching and mercy with his wife, leaving only money under the fruit bowl in the kitchen for Fairly, not even a scribbled note. He kept hoping she would come around religiouswise, his phrase, but by the time she was seventeen he was weary of waiting for her to be what he expected, and just then she began to date the Catholic doctor’s son.

The Catholic doctor’s son was a burly young man who played football and read Walt Whitman and saw Fairly as a remarkable force of nature unsure as yet of her talents and how they might soon be effectively wielded against the ocean of greed in this bruised world, and he thought that when she got a good grip on her tools she would be a holy terror glorious to witness. Also she was just absolutely stunningly beautiful, and being with her was like being in bold italic type, as he said to his friends, who stared at her in amazement, wondering how a town like theirs could have produced such a startling verb of a woman.

The minister, upon discovering their troth, forbade and dissuaded, waxed wroth and fulminated, denied permission and issued punitive measures, but the years of mere money under the fruit bowl proved insuperable, and she too took to fishing and hunting with the Catholic doctor’s son, and trips of preaching and mercy, for both of them were serious about the power of the Word, having survived mere religion to discover the deeper music in the life and work of the One; and both of them proved to be articulate and passionate messengers, blessed with patience and genuinely curious about the sea of story in every being. By the time they were eighteen they were renowned all over the northeast parts of the state, welcomed everywhere, asked to speak, the stars of sermons and Sunday supplements, and men stopped her father in the street to shake his hand and laud the manner in which he had led his daughter to the Light, which now shone from her countenance with a brilliance no star could match.

But her father wept at night, and confessed to the One that his own pride held him back from loving his final child as she was, rather than as he had expected her to be; and not until the day his wife led him to the river, and laved his brow, and spoke quietly, saying embrace what is, did his struggle ease, and a sweet stillness return; and from that day he was the father he wished to be, in whom witness is paramount, and expectation merely a memory. To his wife and sons he seemed quieter, more liable to humor, a man granted more hours in the day, and those more musical; and while he still fished and hunted for the table, he traveled less and listened more.

At the end of the summer of their eighteenth year the girl went west to college and the boy east, and they parted gently, for each by then knew the face of the future; the Catholic doctor’s son became a priest, charging like a fullback at pain and despair ten months a year, and vanishing into the northern mountains every summer to drink of the waters of the One; the Lutheran minister’s daughter became a teacher, and her village in the mountains near Canada built her a schoolhouse of cedar and pine, set against the hills where hunters occasionally saw wolverine and the last of the great bears for which the town was named. Every summer she went home for two months and walked with her mother by the river, and sat with her father in his study, and sang in the streets with her nieces and nephews, and read letters from and wrote letters to the doctor’s son, letters sometimes composed only of the notes of songs, or drawings of fish and ferns, or maps of the patient stars. If we can use the word love in its largest and most wonderful sense, that being a generous tent so incredibly capacious that we cannot see or feel or conceive any limitation to it, one of the words we use for this tent being God, then we can say that she loved the Catholic doctor’s son with every fiber of her being, and he loved her; and as the years went on they loved each other more, for while the world saw a love without the salt and swing of their bodies, they felt a love that deepened and expanded in ways they had never imagined possible. Some years they never exchanged a word at all, but sent each other the smallest of gifts, each eloquent and miraculous: a feather that fell into his hand, a pebble given her by a child, the worn wooden prayer beads that his father carried on his rounds. When each of them heard the crunch of the postman’s boots on the gravel leading to their doors, their hearts leapt; and both postmen came to realize their mailbags were filled with prayers beyond calculation or measurement.

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