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The Butterfly & The Snail
An Inspirational Story of the Transformational Power of Love
By Mary Sullivan Esseff
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 Mary Sullivan Esseff
All rights reserved.
SING A NEW SONG
Salzburg, Austria: July 1, 1964
A hush fell over the room. Immediately, a voice, passionate and pure, rose high, kissing the rafters, filling the room with a soft stream of lyrics: "Thi .. la wee . lek . fee .. neh roi .. yeh hah feen ..." The guitar began quietly, then the drum entered with definitive Middle-Eastern quartertones, not overwhelming, but blending with the tenor's voice that achieved the highest notes with remarkable ease.
The notes—fairies dancing atop a puff of air—wove lithely among the crowded tables until they found the shy red-haired young woman standing alone in the entranceway. Students and teachers clustered around tables blocked the woman's view of the singer at the far end of the social room. Even standing on her toes, she could see only the tips of the musicians' heads.
The song caressed the young woman with tenderness, encircled her, held her in its arms, drew her into the room, guided her between the tables, lingering with her until she sat at a small empty table close to the others, yet still detached.
Notes exploded like silvery fireworks first into a spectacular crescendo, then sprinkled like fairy dust onto the sea of rapt faces. The final whispered note hung in its purity for an eternity, then softly dissolved into the stillness of the night.
The tenor bowed, his head almost touching his knees.
The silence gave way to applause from all except the red-haired young woman. She didn't—couldn't—move.
Without hesitation, the singer immediately began a rendition of "The Sloop John B", popularized by the Kingston Trio a couple of years before. A dozen teenage boys surrounding the singer joined in the chorus with such enthusiasm, it was apparent they had done so many times before. Minutes later, though obviously enjoying the ovation that greeted their harmonic ending, the man apologized to the crowd. "We didn't mean to put on a show or break up the party," he said, taking another modest bow.
The spontaneous show over, the teens and the group of college-age girls burst into excited chatter. The young woman listened as the girls exchanged stories of their first two weeks in Europe. She didn't move to join them.
She sat transfixed. She had heard about the magic in Salzburg—a force that captures, captivates, bewitches so many who visit the city known best as the birthplace of the musical phenomenon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Is that what was happening to her now? She wasn't sure about being enchanted, but she did know one thing—the tenor's voice had touched her, struck her to her core.
The singer thanked the musicians, then walked across the room, moving toward the young woman. He wore a full-length black cassock and Roman collar. He was a priest.
As he passed by, the young woman surprised herself by asking, "What was that beautiful song?"
The priest smiled, said something, then continued walking, stopping occasionally to thank those who held out their hands to praise him.
What did he say? Was he speaking to me?
She watched him walk the length of the room, away from her, to the bar at the far end of the social room.
Her face reddened, embarrassed that she had spoken to him; humiliated that he ignored her; frightened that others had seen and heard.
She watched him tousle the hair of a pimply-faced young man, feign-boxed with another heavy-set kid with thick glasses and braces on his teeth, shake hands with a third adolescent.
Now what? Could she slither past the crowd of carefree, lighthearted students without being seen, crawl up the steps and hide in her room? What made her think she could be comfortable coming to this six-week program to study German when she didn't know a single, solitary soul? Could she really fit in with the young women from Georgetown University's Foreign Service School she had met briefly on her flight.
She looked around. Most of the people in the room had arrived via the airport bus. Luggage was stacked against the near wall. She had arrived earlier and had already unpacked and regained her equilibrium after traveling on her own for a two week pre-study trip. She had lived in low-budget, cold-water hostels, dragged her huge bags on and off buses, ferries and trains from London to Holland, hitchhiked with a couple of guys she met on the Chanel Ferry from France to Germany and Denmark, then finally ended here in Salzburg. A long hot shower got rid of the fatigue that had curled through her travel-worn body like a python squeezing out every last ounce of energy.
She watched the priest speak to the barmaid, pick up one glass, then another, and walk the length of the room again. Back toward her. Too late. Too late to break free. Too late to hide for the rest of the summer in her room. But that was her Old Self. Instead, she pulled her New Self out of its cave where it hid when most frightened and smiled as he approached.
"Hi. I brought you a soda," he said. "No ice. None in all of Europe. Hope that's okay."
"Danke," she said, tentatively trying out one of the few German words she knew. "Great. Thanks." She took the glass and sipped the warm soda.
He pulled a chair out, hiked his cassock up around his worn-shiny black slacks and straddled the chair, facing its back.
"Miserlou," he said. "You asked what the song was. It's an ancient Arabic love song our family—well, to be more accurate—I sing at family weddings and special gatherings." He was still flushed with delight at the group's enthusiastic approval of his singing.
"I'm Mr. Khoury. Khalil Khoury," he said, extending his hand. "I'm part of a folk group at the Jesuit Theologate—it's a college that teaches us Theology for three years—located close to Baltimore in Woodstock, Maryland. We've been practicing various songs for months. We plan to record them in September. I sing every chance I get to keep my voice in shape."
"I'm Rebecca Butler," she said, shaking his hand. She wore a pastel green, wrap-around A-line skirt trimmed in forest green mock leather that coordinated with her button-down peach and green flowered Villager blouse. To protect her from the evening chill, she had draped a soft green cardigan sweater over her shoulders. She wore sheer stockings and penny loafers. She was what Social Director Miss Tewsbury termed de rigueur, perfect in all respects. A Chestnut Hill College woman was always de rigueur.
How she had spotted this six-week intensive German Language program, she couldn't remember, but registering in Georgetown University's Summer Program in Salzburg to get twelve credits and improve her German was the excuse she had given her parents for spending the whole summer in Europe. Well, actually, she had to include a study session to convince her mother to let her spend the summer abroad. Spending time in the magical city of Salzburg with its fantastic music festival had, indeed, intrigued her. It was unquestionably more satisfying than helping her Mom care for her two-year old sister—as much as she loved Maggie. But was that actually why she had come? There seemed to be something more mystical about being here. Or was her imagination playing games with her?
She realized she was still clasping his hand, so warm and unusually soft for a man. She was glad she hadn't bolted from the room because she was shy and in unfamiliar surroundings. Even though she didn't have the courage to join the other students, she was happy she had stayed, pleased she hadn't missed hearing the captivating song, delighted she now held this man's soft hand in hers. Above all, she was relieved someone had finally talked to her.
Overcoming her initial shyness, Rebecca asked: "I thought because of the way you're dressed—in your cassock and Roman collar—that you were a priest. How come your title is 'Mr.' and not 'Father'?"
"Simple. I haven't been ordained yet," Mr. Khoury said. "It takes twelve or more years before we're ordained a priest and can be called 'Father'."
"How many years have you been in the seminary?" she asked.
"This is my twelfth year," he replied.
"So, you're still a seminarian?" she said.
"When you're studying to be a diocesan priest, you're called a seminarian. In the Jesuits, we're called 'Scholastics' until we're ordained. I'm closing in on ordination. Next Spring or maybe the year after depending on what further studies our head guy, the Provincial, wants me to pursue."
"Are you on the faculty here?"
Mr. Khoury, absorbed in searching his pockets, seemed not to hear. She didn't mind the ensuing silence. She used it to study him as he rummaged first through his left, then his right pants pocket eventually pulling out a pipe, tobacco, pipe cleaners, tamper and matches. He was at least ten years older than the boys—maybe late twenties. Though not Omar Sharif handsome, he had a pleasant, welcoming face. His black hair, thick and curly, was dappled with gray. His olive skin and moderately-hooked nose marked a Mediterranean heritage. Even through his black-rimmed glasses, his deep-set eyes drew her into pools of dark chocolate. And his voice—oh, that remarkable voice—was a joy to hear.
It took him several minutes of cleaning, lighting, blowing and tamping to get the pipe going. When he did, the air was filled with a sweet molasses-smelling tobacco—Amphora, he told her when she asked. He puffed on his pipe a couple of times then set it in the ashtray.
"Yes and no," he replied, looking directly into her eyes. "I'm assigned to be mother, father and nose wiper for these young men from Georgetown Prep," he laughed, nodding toward the thirteen teenagers. "They run me ragged. And, after teaching German for three years at Scranton Prep—since I'm from nearby Wilkes-Barre, my family was happy I was there—my superiors thought I could teach a class or two here. What about you? Do you attend Georgetown University?"
"No. I'm a senior at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. I love the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. I've visited there many times, even still have family there—my mother's aunts and uncles. Tell me about your family," she said, moving the conversation away from her, back to him.
As he talked Rebecca again used the time to study Mr. Khoury. Under six-foot, he was out-of-shape, chunky. His demeanor was pleasant, yet intense; spirited, but gentle. He twisted the hair on the crown of his head, then smoothed it down.
"I'm named after Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese poet," he told her. "My last name, Khoury, means 'House of Priests'. I'm descended from a long line of married Maronite Catholic priests," he added with pride.
Sometimes, when questioned directly, she revealed tidbits of information about herself: about meeting her older sister, Lizbett, a PanAm stewardess who had flown into London; about staying at the luxurious Raffles-Brown's Hotel in Mayfair. "The only night I slept in a comfy bed or had a hot shower the entire two weeks of travel. And only because Lizbett paid for the room," Rebecca laughed. "I'm on a tight budget and intend to stick to it."
The rest of her travels had been bunking down in lumpy-bedded hotels or fifth floor walk-up rooms-to-let with no amenities but a sink with cold water and a toilet four floors below. Although she could have afforded slightly better accommodations, her Irish-Scottish heritage held every penny tightly in her fist and made her look for bargains everywhere. Sometimes this meant hitch-hiking in the cab of a truck or being locked by the good Sisters into the empty women's section of the Catholic youth hostel to protect her from the two "marauding" young men whom she had befriended—and innocently travelled with—locked equally strictly into the men's section. But she didn't tell Mr. Khoury any of that.
She was amazed at the vast amount of knowledge Mr. Khoury had stored up from his intensive Jesuit studies. She was also surprised that, despite their age difference, they had a lot in common—people, books, places. She knew she was no match for his intelligence, but he never made her feel uneasy when she asked him to explain something. Nor did he seem bored talking to her—or interested in leaving her to hop to another table despite repeated requests for them to join the Georgetown University girls or the Prep boys. He seemed to be completely content sitting talking to her.
His attentiveness surprised her because Rebecca never thought of herself as anything but an ordinary girl—average height, average weight, average intelligence. It never occurred to her that her naturally curly, strawberry-blonde hair—that "glowed like a golden-red sunset", as her mother described it—or her hazel eyes that turned emerald green in the right light, made her look more attractive. She needed no cosmetics to make her peaches-and-cream complexion look flawless. Her freckles, that popped out at the first hint of summer sun, added a bit of Irish playfulness to her lovely face. In fact, these features that set her apart from her friends, made her feel shy and out of place, especially in crowded rooms filled with strangers. Like at this gathering tonight—the kick off of Georgetown University's six-week summer study session in Salzburg, Austria.
Rebecca Butler was quiet, reserved, typical in every way—or so she thought—until she took this trip in the last week of June, 1964. In fact, as the summer wore on, she wondered if her life would ever be ordinary again.
Neither Rebecca nor Mr. Khoury seemed to notice that the room had gradually emptied as the weary travelers, one by one, drifted up the stairs to their rooms.
For them, the clock stood still.
In fact, involved in conversation so intensely, Rebecca jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Father John O'Toole. "Breakfast comes awfully early! I'm going to turn in. Gute Nacht," he said, flashing his Leprechaunic smile. "Coming, Khalil?"
"Of course, of course. I didn't realize ... the time passed so quickly," Mr. Khoury apologized. "Be right with you."
He turned back to Rebecca. "Some of the Prep boys and a couple of the Georgetown girls are going to start the summer session off with a little adventure and excitement by climbing Untersberg Mountain tomorrow. If you don't have plans, why don't you come along?"
"Sounds like fun. I'd love to." She was pleased to be invited. Her Old Self would have listened to its introverted voice and made her decline. If she had listened to that voice earlier tonight, she never would have stopped him to ask about the song he had sung. Then, she would have missed meeting this extraordinary man.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
Untersberg: July 2, 1964
It was twenty minutes past twelve when the three trams squealed to a stop at the upper station of Untersberg's cableway. The eleven explorers jumped off and took in the vista of the mountain filled with majesty, grandeur, beauty. And ... danger.
Rebecca breathed in the crisp air as she looked at the hike still before her. To reach the summit of this section of Untersberg required additional legwork. The sun, though just beyond its highest point, was still intense forcing the hikers to shield their eyes as they looked upward and began the climb.
For this outing, Rebecca wore a short-sleeved Villager blouse with tiny blue, green and yellow flowers on a pastel orchid-blue background that coordinated with her blue skirt. A blue cardigan sweater hung loosely around her shoulders. Stockings and soft penny loafers completed the outfit. She carried her London Fog coat in case it cooled off or rained later in the afternoon. Karen had dressed more sensibly in slacks, a heavy sweater and hiking boots. Mr. Khoury and Father O'Toole were dressed in black pants, white turtleneck shirts, black vest sweaters and black windbreakers. The Prepsters wore casual slacks, long-sleeved open-collar shirts with a variety of sweaters and jackets.
As they climbed, Rebecca snapped pictures of the colorful patchwork of small farms that stretched for miles along the rolling green hills of the alpine valley. Villages with clusters of red-roofed homes were scattered amid the farms. Window boxes filled with multicolored flowers hung from each balcony. Rebecca focused on herds of cattle and small wiry goats grazing on the incline. Once, a great horned sheep bounded up a cliff and vanished into a hillside crevice. Rebecca set her viewfinder on wispy clouds drifting lazily past the distant mountain peaks piercing the brilliant blue sky.
The Brownie was one of her most treasured possessions. Her mother had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday: "Treasure this, Rebecca. Your Papa, God rest his soul, used it to send us pictures from Germany during the war. He would be happy knowing you love photography as much as he did."
Snap. Snap. Snap.
When the distant church bell gonged at one o'clock, Mr. Khoury wiped his forehead and paused. "Anyone hungry besides me? Let's break for lunch."
"Yeah!" a chorus of voices agreed.
Excerpted from The Butterfly & The Snail by Mary Sullivan Esseff. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Sullivan Esseff. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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