An ocean falls from the sky. Boots awash and waterlogged, body adrift in a sea of Georgia pine, I stretch my rainfly over its soft-chine poles and crawl in out of the squall. It is eight days since I graduated from college and two months after most typical thru hikers embark on the Appalachian Trail, the 2,200-mile footpath that runs from the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is an inauspicious beginning. I shiver all night in puddles of bilge water, my bag of goose down balled tight in my arms.
My childhood on the south coast of Lake Erie drew me hard to the horizon. A freshwater sea lapped at the edge of my world and I longed for it to pull me from shore. Maybe it was for this reason George G. Toudouze’s short story “Three Skeleton Key” so captivated my seventh-grade mind. I obsessed over the caretakers’ conviction that “the light is something sacred, warning ships of danger in the night. Either the light gleams a quarter-hour after sun-down, or no one is left alive to light it.1” The moral, my textbook said, was human triumph over nature, but to me it was a tale about purpose and life on the brim. I wanted not so much to conquer the wild as to have it swallow me whole, to be exiled like Helmholtz in a Falkland gale, to dwell as a beacon warden on Amon Dîn. But lighthouse keepers are extinct these days, or trending there fast, and I harbored a deep fear I’d never know such hermitic devotion.
Sliding back into the vernal pool of my youth I recall languid summer evenings in Northeast Ohio—cold linoleum, moth-veneered screen windows, and the trill of gray tree frogs—but no certain memory of when I first marched pawns across the brass-hinged chess board my dad kept in his closet. Despite years of play, my father and I are no masters of the game. We are what the Fédération Internationale des Échecs politely call “novices.” Generally among novices there are those who favor bishops and those who favor knights. My father and I favor knights, or, as they’re known in other languages (and English, informally), horses or horsemen. We prefer the Spanish Variation of the Four Knights opening, inevitably castling short with kingside rooks. Our games so closely resemble each other’s now that matches are a long stalemate of waiting moves, followed by a bloodbath.
The Philidor defense: an unostentatious opening. A pair of staggered pawns holds at bay white’s bid for the center of the board and black attacks with a bishop. So began “A Night at the Opera,” one of the most famous chess matches in history. Two European aristocrats, Comte Isouard de Vauvenargues and Charles II, Duke of Brunswick, teamed up to challenge American Paul Morphy during an 1858 Paris performance of Norma, the classic bel canto opera.2 Greatly outranking his opponents, Morphy commanded the board early and forfeited his queen as the penultimate action of a stunning checkmate sequence. While the game involved only seventeen moves, it demonstrated a masterclass in positional advantage and sacrifice.
Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, adapted from Alexandre Soumet’s poem, Norma ou L’infanticide (Norma, or the Infanticide), follows a druidic priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul, the ancient region of western Europe Caesar conquered between 52 and 58 BC. Millions of Celts were slaughtered. Those who survived were assimilated into other cultures and political systems over the following centuries, though some populations from more remote areas like Ireland, which was well-insulated from conquest by the English Channel and Irish Sea, held onto their traditions longer. Little is known of Insular Celtic culture, but it’s believed that their religion, Celtic Paganism, centered around animistic polytheism—that gods dwell in trees, mountains, and rivers. The eventual Christianization of the Emerald Isle ended many druidic customs, but pilgrimages to sacred wells and other practices continue today.
Georgia holds me like a rip. The trail flows over peaks, slumped and the same, and I rise and fall unendingly, groped by nettle, goldenseal, laurel, and rue. I awake each morning to a mucus sheen on my tent, slugs clinging to the vestibule like bats. Spider webs break across my face as I walk and giant carpenter ants crawl under my shirt whenever I sit down to rest. Blackflies leave an array of red welts in the creases behind my knees and along the sweat-softened flesh at the edge of my socks. Sticky dampness pervades my clothes, my pack, my skin, the air, a hug that is never relinquished. Apricot pus leaks from my blistered hips and I fold my cotton bandana to cushion the chafe. I struggle to move. The forest presses in.
Pagans are not what the ancient Celts would have called themselves, it being a term of Christian self-definition meant to strengthen identity through otherness. Originally, pagan probably referred to non-Romans, literally meaning “rustic” or “non-militant.” Over time, however, the label evolved from referring to those who dwelt in wild or remote places to mean those who were non-Christian or who practiced “peculiar” localized worship. Because of paganism’s role as an antithesis to Christian identity, it was used during the Protestant Reformation to condemn saint-worshiping Catholicism as a false religion. “Rome, once a rock of Christianity in a sea of other ‘idolatrous’ religions, was now denounced as a see of pagan iniquity,” says professor of social history, Owen Davies3.
A variety of water mold spread through Ireland in 1845, decimating potato yields. British laissez-faire policy kept ports open and nearly all edible crops were exported to Britain. Irish tenant farmers were evicted from their homes and left to starve in the streets. One million people died. About as many emigrated to the United States, my dad’s ancestors among them. This Mac Curtain line, my clan, family lore says, sailed from County Cork as the lumper crop failed. They landed in New York, moved west, and dropped the Mac from their name.
Tomás Óg Mac Curtain (Tomás Mac Curtain, Jr.), a leading member of the Irish Republican Army, was surveilled and periodically arrested by the gardai under the emergency powers granted them to stay insurrection during the 1930s and ’40s. His father, Tomás Mac Curtain, was a catholic Irish Nationalist and brigade commander in the IRA and led the Cork Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising4.
My dad, Thomas Curtin, grew up in a yellow two-story foursquare on Wayne Avenue in Lakewood, Ohio, on the west side of Cleveland. His father, Thomas Curtin, grew up in the same house on the same street and worked as a credit manager for Hupp Corp., a manufacturer of electric fans. He attended mass at St. James Roman Catholic Church every Sunday and bustled his wife and four kids out of the sanctuary at the start of the last hymn in order to beat traffic.
A scream pierces the night and the tabernacle woods holds on to the cry. It lingers for ages until the last whisper dies out. For a second it seems the owl’s downy body has soaked up not just the rabbit’s shrill squeal, but all other sounds too. I blink in the silence. There is nothing but black. For a terrible heartbeat I think I am dead, that the scream I heard wasn’t the death shriek of prey but my own final breath, that I haven’t awoken in my tent but instead departed my body. Then the thrum of insects washes in like a wave and frogs gulp again in the night. Somewhere in the trees a whippoorwill repeats its name. I draw my legs to my chest and check the glowing hands of my watch. An elderly couple gave me a small pouch of chocolate-covered goji berries at a scenic overlook sixty-one hours ago—the last humans I’ve seen. I wriggle forward on the egg-carton dimples of my foam sleeping pad until my face finds the cold, dewed wall of my tent. I cry in self-pity and, like the nightjar, murmur my name.
Doubting Thomas, one of the Twelve Disciples of Jesus Christ, is called such because he insisted on touching the wounds of crucifixion before believing the resurrection. He’s painted that way, knuckle deep in the savior’s ribs, ever the skeptic. But he also traveled the Silk Road from Europe to India as an evangelist and founded seven missions. He is now sometimes known as the Apostle of India and a shrine to him was built on Saint Thomas Mount, the location of his martyrdom near Chennai in 72 AD. His relics were interred on the Greek island of Chios for a time, but now reside in the Basilica Cattedrale di San Tommaso Apostolo in Ortona, Italy. Religious devotees walk there along the Cammino di san Tommaso, or the Way of Saint Thomas, a 196-mile pilgrimage that begins in Rome. His skull is thought to be on Patmos, the island to which John the Apostle, author of “Revelation,” was famously exiled.
I was baptized Catholic but raised primarily in a United Church of Christ congregation, the Protestant denomination my parents left St. Helen for when I was still young. My frequent sermon daydream was of the sanctuary—a thirty-foot-tall thoracic cage in which the heart of the congregation beat, sometimes, to the exultant chords of the “Hallelujah Chorus”—opening up at the wall and roof like a clamshell. The convex, dark-beamed sanctuary ceiling was surely the belly of a sailing ship, inverted and repurposed to cap this house of god and which could, if only I prayed hard enough, be lifted off its joists by a divine gust, swell its boards in a thousand-year flood, and carry me across the Great Lakes to the breakers of the indomitable Atlantic.
James A. Leonard was brought to the United States from Ireland as a small child, around the same time as my ancestors. He grew up in New York City and made a name for himself as a sensational chess prodigy. He played many games at The Morphy Chess and Billiard Rooms which occupied the southeastern corner of Fourth and Broadway in NoHo. The rooms were named for the chess celebrity, but owned and operated by Joseph Klatzl and John Kappner, a pair of asylum-seeking Hungarian revolutionaries. The rooms were closed in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War during which, it’s rumored, Morphy, an Orleanian, returned south to serve on Beauregard’s staff5.
I am named for Saint Brendan the Navigator, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Legend has it Saint Brendan crossed the North Atlantic in an ox-hide currach in search of the promised land. Compelled west under sails of the Celtic cross, he frog-hopped from the Hebrides to the Faroes and from Iceland and Greenland to the furthest straining spit of North America, discovering the New World for Europeans 500 years before Leif Erikson. Dorothy Bray, an expert in medieval literature says of Saint Brendan’s journey: “The Navigato [sancti Brendani] exhibits all the characteristics of an Irish immram…a voyage tale of monastic provenance.” This genre is not to be confused with echtrae, another Irish literary tradition which embraces pagan elements as fixtures of life and landscape, not, as in the immram, obstacles to maintaining a pure Christian faith. Bray: “Brendan’s ocean-going experience becomes the Christian quest for eternal bliss (the heavenly home) adapted into the Irish literary tradition of the search for the happy Otherworld6.”
In Virginia, 825 miles north of Springer Mountain, a man in a cowboy hat says hello to me where I sit, overgrown, stringy, and putrid, parceling next week’s food on the sidewalk outside the Montebello Post Office. “Hi,” I say. His hands drop to a pair of invisible six-shooters at his hips. “You from above the Line, boy?” he says. “The Line?” I ask. The man’s right hand stays where it is, fondling his Beaumont-Adams fantasy, but the thumb of his left slides into the waistband of his jeans and contemplates his belt from hip to buckle. “I’m from Ohio,” I offer. The man stumps up the wooden steps of the Montebello Country Store without another word. I flip through my databook to see how soon I can reach Pennsylvania.
My father revisits the Appalachian Trail like the tide to the shore. He first walked from near Kent, Connecticut to Gorham, New Hampshire when he was twenty. He led hikes on the AT as an outdoor recreation specialist for a metropark in Ohio, shuttling van-fulls of flatlanders to the mountains in the East. He’s forayed in Maine, PA, and Georgia. He and I hiked two 200-mile sections of the trail together when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, and it was these hikes, these stories, this persistent, lingering presence of the trail in our household that sent me back after college to walk its whole length. I’d just returned from Ireland where a statue of St. Brendan looms larger than life in Wolfe Tone Square, County Cork. Brendan stands in the bow of his boat on the crest of a curling wave, arms flung wide, face calm in the spray of the western sea.
Thomas Merton, the prominent Trappist monk—a cloistered sect of Roman Catholics and adherents to the Rule of Saint Benedict—spent many of his later years at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist enclave in Kentucky. A restless spirit alive in troubled times, Merton sought isolation, requesting and being granted a hermitage in a small cottage removed from the rest of the community. Merton subsequently gained prominence for the autobiography of his quest for faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. Having spent nearly three decades at the Abbey—contradicting the direction of the Church; questioning and reaffirming his devotion; loving, illicitly, beyond the grounds of the monastery; gaining fidelities as well as treacheries—the yearning, uncontainable, fallible Merton embarked on a speaking tour in Thailand7. He was found dead a short time later in his Bangkok hotel room with the cord of a short-circuited floor fan on his chest. This and an accompanying head wound were never fully investigated. His body was returned, without autopsy, to the States aboard a military plane bearing soldiers who’d died in Vietnam8.
The math department at my junior high school holds a compulsory chess tournament for seventh graders. Those of us who knew it used the Scholar’s Mate against our first round of classmates. Some found it a humane execution, a lethal injection given without notice at the open, a quick expiration only four moves in, no pieces lost to betray the speeding end. I fretted for years after, wondering if it was unsporting. Those whose winning strategy relied too heavily on this queen-and-bishop assassination succumbed in the tides of advanced play shortly thereafter. I beat talents and cheats to reach the championship match, but capsized there and lost by points at the study hall bell. I forsook competitive play following that, turning instead to sterile mathematical problems like the knight’s tour, a succession of moves in which the piece touches every square of the chessboard only once. It is possible to formulate a closed tour so the horseman finds itself back on the square from where it set out, but it’s also possible that after completing the tour the knight will be a great number of spaces from where it began.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear as harbingers of the divine apocalypse in “Revelation,” the final book of the New Testament. They are: the white horse of conquest, the red horse of war, the black horse of famine, and the pale horse of death onto the world.
My stomach boils. I fumble for the tent zipper and heave my body over the gunwale lip at the gossamer door. Sick spatters the ground. I collapse at the edge of the froth, breathless, and savor the fresh breeze. My belly gurgles. More puke comes up. Weak and trembling, I drag myself out of my shelter, away from the sour puddle and over to a nearby tree. I spill bile into the duff and clutch a stick with which to prod any bear that might come sniffing around. I huddle all night in the woods of the eastern wild, cramping, sweating, feverish, and awake sometime the next morning—spread-eagle on the ground like a crucifix—with pine needles stuck to my lips.
The name Thomas is derived from Aramaic and Hebrew equivalents, Toma and Teom. These, and the Greek name Didymus, by which Thomas the Apostle is sometimes known in the New Testament, mean twin.
Tim Severin, an Irish historian and explorer, launched a replica of Saint Brendan’s thirty-six-foot-long, double-masted currach from Southern Ireland in May, 1976. 1,600 leather lashings tethered the ash ribs to the keel. Forty-nine tanned ox hides sewn together with twenty-three miles of hand-rolled flax thread formed the hull. The seams were sealed with wool grease. Four long oars and two flaxen sails embossed with the Celtic cross carried the boat 4,500 miles through the churning swells of the North Atlantic until, in late-June, 1977, the medieval buoy, ice-punctured and algae-encrusted, nosed onto the shore of Peckford Island, just off the coast of Newfoundland9. Fifty miles south of Peckford sits the ten-mile-long Pangeaic wake of Cottel Island. The largest community on Cottel—population 145—is the coastal town Saint Brendan’s.
A close aunt recommended Merton’s autobiography to my father which led him to visit Gethsemani in 1976, though Merton was no longer alive at that time. My father traveled to Gethsemani three times that year and a Father Allen assessed him for monastic proclivity. But he joined an expedition traversing the Yellowstone backcountry the following winter and never returned to the monastery.
“The Hymn of the Pearl,” or “The Hymn of Jude Thomas the Apostle in the Country of the Indians” appears in Thomas the Apostle’s apocryphal Acts of Thomas, though the original author is unknown. The poem tells the story of a boy who leaves his home in the east to retrieve a pearl from a serpent that lives along the Nile. In lines four and five of the poem, the narrator states that, “From the wealth of their treasuries they gave me a great cargo, / Which was light, so that I could carry it by myself—” Although the context suggests the cargo was light as in not heavy, consisting of literal treasures to fund the journey, it could also be a spiritual light which, according to the allegorical interpretation, is meant to guide the descended soul to salvation. I think of the treasure entrusted to this boy as literal luminescent light, light of equal preciousness and radiance to “…gold from the high country, silver plate of the great treasuries, / Emerald jewels of India, and agates of Kosan…10” It is a light of unprecedented value, and one for which he alone is responsible, one that he alone must bear and protect. The story nearly ends in calamity when the narrator forgets his purpose and succumbs to lust and gluttony. He is pulled from this stupor by a letter from his father though, retrieves the pearl, and return home safely11.
The end is all mist and shriveled trees, a world more reef than woods. Soupy peat—black water and false land—floats planed logs as slick as ice floes. It pulls stray feet into its depths and holds them. Night comes quick and cold and brings rain that hisses on taut cloth like a wraith, a fetch of wind and fog howling through the crags. An oblique sun scans low and bright across the horizon and is all that breaks through the spitting sky.
The Philidor Defense opened a match between Leonard and William G. Thomas in Philadelphia in 1861. The final moves of the game, in which Leonard sacrificed his queen as the penultimate action of a stunning checkmate sequence, are described by John S. Hilbert: “The denouement is wrought up to a pitch of true tragic intensity12,” an ominous foreshadowing of the great Irish-American chess player’s premature fate. Leonard joined Company F of the 88 New York Volunteer Regiment, Irish Brigade of the Union Army when he was twenty. “By signing his enlistment papers, Leonard transformed himself from being the King of New York Chess to less than a pawn in the bloody game played out on the national stage,” says Hilbert. Leonard was taken prisoner from a field hospital after the battle of Savage Station, near Gaines Mill, Virginia. He was likely held on Belle Island, a prisoner of war facility in the James River outside Richmond, for eighty days before being paroled as part of a prisoner exchange planned in Aikens Landing, Maryland. He died of scorbutic dysentery before he was freed13.
The nightrider or knightmare is a chess piece in a variant of the game known as faerie chess. The nightrider advances in the same style as a traditional knight, but for as many steps in the same direction as it wishes, similar to the style of a bishop.
In 1920, Tomás Mac Curtain, then Lord Mayor of Cork, was assassinated by four members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who broke into his home in the middle of the night and shot him in front of his wife and five-year-old son. His death was avenged by the Twelve Apostles, the IRA counterintelligence division which specialized in the assassination of Irish Unionists and British M15 agents. Years later, Tomás Óg Mac Curtain drew a pistol on a quartet of officers who detained him on the street. He shot police detective John Roche in the stomach, point blank, killing him. Tomás Óg was imprisoned at Union Quay and later sentenced to death. Protests and appeals, as well as a hunger strike by six IRA prisoners, postponed his hanging, and political pressure reduced his sentence to life behind bars. He was released after seven years when Clann na Poblachta—a Republican political faction led by Seán MacBride, Mac Curtain’s lawyer—came into power14.
Somewhere in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness of northern Maine I crouch by a broad pool of crystalline water. On impulse, I set aside my filter and bottle and bend forward until my face breaks the surface of the spring. A few disturbed leaves tickle my neck. Then there is nothing. Just icy, soundless, fathomless depth. I part my lips and drink from the darkness.
Faerie, Tír na nÓg, or the Otherworld, is a realm of spiritual and fantastical beings in Celtic mythology. Many Irish folk heroes visit this place, either by invitation of its inhabitants, stumbling upon its entrance in a cave or grotto, or journeying through the mist on the western sea. Time is supposed to behave strangely there, and often heroes who travel to Faerie return to find the old world has gone on without them. That, or they never come back at all. In his essay, “Second Sight,” Devin Johnston suggests fairyland is like ultraviolet light—all around us, but invisible to the naked eye. It teases us with the iridescent sheen of starling wings, but keeps us ignorant to the totality of its spectrum15. It is always merely one step away.
In the introduction to Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St. Benedict for everyday life, Father Anthony Marett-Crosby, Ordo Sancti Benedicti, writes that “two monks, by birth loyal to the King of France [and], by monastic vow attached to a Norman monastery, [were] by chance appointment, abandoned on a remote outcrop of rock between Jersey and the Cherbourg peninsula16.” In 1309, representatives of the King of England called upon the pair and made record of the duties they performed in isolation: “‘He who is called Prior and his companion…dwelling in the chapel throughout the whole year maintain a light burning in that chapel so that the sailors crossing the sea by that light may avoid peril of the reef…where the greatest danger exists of being wrecked. These two always perform the divine office17.’”
Chess originated in India around the sixth century as the game chaturaṅga and was shared along the Silk Road. It spread with the conquests of the Persian Empire and reached southern Europe by the ninth century. “Versus de Scachis,” a medieval poem about chess written around 1000, is the oldest surviving recorded reference to chess and is kept in Einsiedeln Abbey of Our Lady of the Hermits, a Benedictine monastery in Switzerland. In the modern iteration of the game, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. As such, its sacrifice is rare and typically only for immense positional advantage. It is capital sacrifice, total sacrifice, a tremendous and defining exchange.
After 2,200 miles rolling through the crests and troughs of the Appalachian Mountains, the bony keel of my spine runs aground on the jumbled boulders of Mount Katahdin in Maine, just southwest of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where Saint Brendan may have pulled his currach ashore over 1,400 years ago. I am one of twelve thru hikers to finish their walk this day. A thousand mountain peaks recede below our blistered feet. An expansive, unfiltered, ultraviolet sky spans above our heads, deep and ultramarine. We take a photo together, perched on the summit sign, a ragged, ruddy fleet of apostles bracing our shrunken frames against each other as ballast.
In the fall of the following year I drive from Carbondale, Colorado, where I am renting a room, to St. Benedict’s, a Trappist monastery in Snowmass. A Brother Aaron invites me to explore the grounds and observe the monk’s midday prayer. He wears flip flops and a threadbare Bolder Boulder 10K t-shirt and tells me he worked as a sacristan at St. Brendan’s parish in the Bronx. It was there he first felt his monastic calling. He asks me if I have ever considered the monastic life myself. I answer vaguely. Six months later I get a ride to the Mexico border in a squeaking, scraping GMC Suburban and embark on a five-month walk to Canada along the Continental Divide. I never return to the monastery.
Brendan Curtinrich grew up on the north coast of Ohio and in the sheep pastures of New York. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and environment from Iowa State University. His work has been published in Appalachia, Gigantic Sequins, and Trail Runner magazine and is forthcoming in Sierra, Footnote and Terrain.org.
- Toudouze, George G. “Three Skeleton Key.” Esquire, Jan. 1937, pp. 51, 195-198, https://classic.esquire.com/article/1937/1/1/three-skeleton-key. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.
- Edge, Frederick Milnes. The Exploits and Triumphs, In Europe, of Paul Morphy, the Chess Champion: Including an Historical Account of Clubs, Biographical Sketches of Famous Players, and Various Information and Anecdote Relating to the Noble Game of Chess. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859, pp. 173-175.
- Davies, Owen. Paganism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 5.
- Wallace, Colm. “Detective John Roche.” The Fallen: Gardai Killed in Service 1922-49, The History Press, 2017, pp. 141-153.
- Hilbert, John S. The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841-1862, McFarland & Company, 2006, pp. 12-21.
- Bray, Dorothy Ann, “Allegory in the Navigato sancti Brendani.” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, volume 26, 1995, pp. 2.
- Coovey, John. “Thomas Merton: the Hermit Who Never Was, His Young Lover and Mysterious Death.” The Irish Times, 9 Nov 2015, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/thomas-merton-the-hermit-who-never-was-his-young-lover-and-mysterious-death-1.2422818. Accessed 3 June 2019.
- Jacobs, Alan, “Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet.” The New Yorker, 28 Dec 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/thomas-merton-the-monk-who-became-a-prophet. Accessed 3 June 2019.
- Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage: An epic crossing of the Atlantic by leather boat. Hutchinson & Co., 1978.
- Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: a New Translation with Annotations and Introductions by Bentley Layton. Doubleday & Co., 1987, pp. 371.
- Layton, Bentley. pp. 372-375.
- Hilbert, John S. The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841-1862. McFarland & Company, 2006, pp. 122.
- Hilbert, John S. The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841-1862. McFarland & Company, 2006, pp. 122.
- Wallace, Colm. The Fallen: Gardai Killed in Service 1922-49, The History Press, 2017, pp. 141-153.
- Johnston, Devin. “Second Sight,” Creaturely and Other Essays, Turtle Point Press, 2009, pp. 41-48.
- Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life, edited by Patrick Barry, Richard Yeo, and Kathleen Norris, Liturgical Press, 2005, pp. vii.
- Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life, pp. viii.