Excerpt | “The Shepherd’s Calculus” by CS Farrelly
When Peter Merrick’s cell phone rang around ten on a Monday morning, his first instinct was to ignore it. Anyone who knew him well enough to call that number would know he had a deadline for the last of a three-part series he was working on for the Economist. It was his first foray into magazine writing in some time, and he’d made it clear to his wife, his editors, and even the family dog that he wasn’t to be disturbed until after the last piece was done and delivered.
Several months had passed since his return from an extended and harrowing assignment tracking UN peacekeeping operations on the Kashmiri border with Pakistan, where violent protests had erupted following the death of a local Hizbul Mujahideen military commander. The assignment had left him with what his wife, Emma, solemnly declared to be post-traumatic stress disorder. It was, in his opinion, a dubious diagnosis she’d made based on nothing more than an Internet search, and he felt those covering the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan deserved greater sympathy. He’d been a bystander to tragedy, he told anyone who asked, not a victim.
One morning as he’d stood drinking strong Turkish coffee on the terrace of his apartment in Jammu, he watched as a car bomb detonated in front of the school across the road. No children were killed. It was a Saturday, and teachers had gathered there to meet with members of a French NGO dedicated to training staff at schools in developing nations. The arm landed on his terrace with a loud thud before Peter realized what it was. Pinned to the shoulder of what remained of its shirt was a name tag identifying Sheeraza Akhtar, presumably one of the teachers. At the time, he marveled at his complete lack of reaction to the torn limb, at the way his response was to read the letters on the tag, grab a pen, and start writing down details of the event—a description of jewelry on the woman’s hand, the streak of half-cauterized flesh running from where it tore from the arm socket to the bottom of her palm, the way smoke curled from the remains of the school’s front entrance, and the pitiful two-ambulance response that limped its way to the scene nearly twenty minutes after the explosion.
Even now as he recalled the moment, he wouldn’t describe what he felt as horror or disgust, just a complete separation from everything around him, an encompassing numbness. His wife kept telling him he needed to talk to someone about what he was feeling. But that was just the point, he thought, even if he couldn’t say it to her. He couldn’t quite articulate what he was feeling, beyond paralysis. Making the most rudimentary decisions had been excruciating since his return. It required shaking off the dull fog he’d come to prefer, the one that rescued him from having to connect to anything. The pangs of anxiety constricting his chest as he glanced from the screen of the laptop to his jangling cell phone were the most palpable emotional response he’d had in recent memory. The interruption required a decision of some kind. He wasn’t certain he could comply.
But in keeping with the career he had chosen, curiosity got the better of him. He looked at the incoming number. The area code matched that of his hometown in central Connecticut, less than an hour from where he and Emma now lived in Tarrytown, but his parents had long since retired to South Carolina. He made his decision to answer just as the call went to voice mail, which infuriated him even more than the interruption. For Peter, missing something by mere minutes or seconds was the sign of a journalist who didn’t do his job, who failed to act in time. Worse, he’d allowed a good number of calls to go to voice mail while under his deadline, and the thought of having to sift through them all made him weary. The phone buzzed to announce a new message. He looked again from his screen to the phone, paralyzed by the uncertainty and all-consuming indecision he’d begun exhibiting upon his return from Kashmir. After several minutes of failed progress on his article, the right words refusing to come to him, he committed to the message.
He grabbed the phone and dialed, browsing online news sites as inconsequential voices droned on. His editor. His sister. His roommate from college asking if he’d heard the news and to call him back. Finally, a message from Patricia Roedlin in the Office of Public Affairs at his alma mater, Ignatius University in Greenwich, Connecticut. Father Ingram, the president of the university, had passed away unexpectedly, and the university
would be delighted if one of their most successful graduates would be willing to write a piece celebrating his life for the Hartford Courant.
The news failed to register. Again, a somewhat common experience since his return. He tapped his fingers on the desk and spotted the newspaper on the floor where Emma had slipped it under the door. In the course of their ten-year marriage, Peter had almost never closed his office door. “If I can write an article with mortar shells falling around me, I think I can handle the sound of a food processor,” he had joked. But lately that had changed, and Emma had responded without comment, politely leaving him alone when the door was shut and sliding pieces of the outside world in to him with silent cooperation. He picked up the newspaper, scanned the front page, and moved on to the local news. There it was, in a small blurb on page three. “Pedestrian Killed in Aftermath of Ice Storm.” The aging president of a local university was the victim of an accident after leaving a diner in Bronxville. His body was found near the car he’d parked on a side street. Wounds to the back of his head were consistent with a fall on the ice, and hypothermia was believed to be the cause of death.
To Peter’s eye the name of the victim, James Ingram, stuck out in bold print. An optical illusion, he knew, but it felt real. He reached for the second drawer on the right side of his desk and opened it. A pile of envelopes rested within. He rooted around and grasped one. The stamp was American but the destination was Peter’s address in Jammu. The script was at once shaky and assured, flourishes on the ending consonants with trembling hesitation in the middle. Folded linen paper fell from the opened envelope with little prompting. He scanned the contents of the letter, front and back, until his eyes landed on the closing lines.
“Well, Peter my boy, it’s time for me to close this missive. You may well be on your way to Kabul or Beirut by the time this reaches you, but I have no small belief that the comfort it is meant to bring will find its way to you regardless of borders.
You do God’s work, Peter. Remember, the point of faith isn’t to explain away all the evil in this world. It’s
meant to help you live here in spite of it.
Benedictum Nomen Iesu,
Peter dialed Patricia Roedlin’s number. She was so happy to hear from him it made him uncomfortable. “I’d be honored to write a piece,” he spoke into the phone. “He talked about you to anyone who would listen, you know,” she said. “I think he would be pleased. Really proud.” He heard her breath catch in her throat, the stifled sobs that had likely stricken her since she’d heard the news.
“It’s okay,” he found himself saying to this complete stranger, an effort to head off her tears. “I can’t imagine what I’d be doing now if it weren’t for him.” He hoped it would give her time to recover. “He was an extraordinary man and an outstanding teacher.”
Patricia’s breathing slowed as she regained control. “I hope to do him justice,” Peter finished. It was only when he hung up the phone that he noticed them, the drops of liquid that had accumulated on the desk where he’d been leaning forward as he talked. He lifted a hand to his face and felt the moisture line from his eye to his chin. After several long months at home, the tears had finally come.
Excerpt from The Shepherd’s Calculus by C.S. Farrelly. Copyright © 2017 by C.S. Farrelly. Reproduced with permission from C.S. Farrelly. All rights reserved.