“Jorge – The Holy Father transfered me recently,” Fr. Anthony was saying, behind the maelstrom of William’s speculations, “We’ve been trying to get a research team together, as you well know. It hasn’t been as successful, but we’re trying, nevertheless. Landon and Bradley – Bradley, especially – the boys are impatient, but this might be a good extended vacation for them after the States – after everything, after all those years.”
“Yes – have you heard from them?” Was all that William could manage, as the rest of his thoughts continued to assemble and reassemble all the worst case scenarios that his imagination could manage.
It seemed that Fr. Anthony had been ready for all questions but that. “We – have – been communicating, though not as constantly in the last few months,” he answered slowly, “I’m sorry, William: I wish I could tell you more about how they are doing, except there have been events that are more pressing, of late.”
It was refreshing to hear someone call him by his first name in ordinary conversation, “I’ll write to them and maybe even surprise them with a visit,” William surprised even himself with the spontaneity of his proposal, “We haven’t really talked since I sent the final version of the transcripts and notes.”
“And understandably so, because they’ve been reviewing everything since the beginning of the project,” Fr. Anthony put in, calm, but somewhat pushing the breaths into the ends of his sentences, as though he were eager to get to the point of the meeting, “I wouldn’t advise a surprise because they have close deadlines for the final transcripts. But yes, email them. Well… perhaps you might, after tonight.”
William’s blood flowed like icy shards through his veins. The priest’s tone was low, level; even the still silent Fr. Matteo’s demeanor seemed to carry its own weight.
“I’m sorry to have to hurry this meeting to its natural conclusion, but there is something that we have to ask you,” Fr. Anthony continued, as unaffected as before, “I need you to recall: are there any students, at all, that you have spoken to, heard about – any student talking about what they feel are insurmountable difficulties in their studies?”
William had to breathe through what he felt was a gust of warm air in the biting, storm-ridden cold. “I’ll have to talk to the counselors,” he said, trying to stress each word. He felt that someone else was speaking, and he was simply sitting in his chair and sipping coffee, a shell absent an owner. “It’s just my first month, so I don’t know if we’ve had cases like that. I’ll have to look at our files.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Fr. Anthony almost cut into his sentence, “We’re talking the last few days, even hours. Has a counselor shared anything, about students’ problems, something that was big and glaring, something that would have put all of you on high alert, anything that seemed like a red flag?”
William was tempted to laugh. To anyone who viewed his work from the outside, anything could be a red flag, so that nothing was a red flag anymore. But he would know if something was alarming; it would have destroyed his meeting schedules, disrupted his routine, interrupted his day of walk-work-walk-sleep.
“I haven’t heard anything yet,” he answered, taking a bite out of his corned beef sandwich, “But I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.”
Fr. Anthony glanced quickly at his companion, who responded with a shake of his head.
“I am sorry, but this is quite urgent,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was level still, but there was a current of worry in it, where his words seemed to clamber over each other in an endless dance of desperation, “Have you observed anything at all in any student whom you might have seen, met, encountered today? Anything that made you want to bring the student in for counseling?”
“I’ve been in the office all day, so no,” William tried to keep the irritation out of his reply. Was that part of the deal, having to seek students out, talk to them, assess them on the spot? He would go insane himself from the information overload long before he could finish interviewing a single class. How could anyone watch out for close to ten thousand students – and that was just the undergraduate population! What kind of job did he get himself into anyway?
William felt the warm air leave him, only to be replaced by a biting cold that stung his nostrils and reminded him of the Boston winter.
For some reason, Fr. Matteo looked at him sharply – or looked at a world beyond him, one that rested on his left shoulder, then swept out of the room through the back wall.
Again, William’s veins ran with frozen blood. The priest’s movements were slight, but years of talking to people, observing them, seeing where twitches and glares marked where the lies and truths intersected – years of practice had taught William to notice when people were worried, troubled, alarmed.
The younger Jesuit was fearful.
Fr. Anthony had seen it as well, and his voice forced itself into an urgent monotone.
“Thank you for the offer to inform us about any new cases,” the older Jesuit began, blue eyes less bright, as though he, too, were afraid of what he was about to say, “But there is a reason for the last minute call, and for asking about the latest cases. Perhaps Fr. Matteo is in a better position to explain.”
William had not taken his eyes off the younger Jesuit, who had hitherto been quiet, but whose movements betrayed a good deal of knowledge, of emotion kept beneath a layer of calm.
“I am – sorry, as well, Dr. Lambskeep,” Fr. Matteo began, voice as level as his companion’s, but without the gravelly undertones of the elder Jesuit, “For intruding on your time, and for this last minute request. I only made it because I felt – saw – that it could not wait. I once had the chance to help out the counseling office, but I wasted it, and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”
The Jesuit paused, but his eyes never left William’s left shoulder, as though watching something there. A mixture of cold air and warm blood accosted the head of the counseling office then; William figured it was a response to the combination of Fr. Anthony’s now cold blue eyes and Fr. Matteo’s unwavering stare.
“I’ll get straight to the point,” Fr. Matteo continued, voice quieter, as though he had prayed and had personally seen the prayer answered, “I can see angels. I can see only their shadows or their trails of light, and only when they allow themselves to be seen. But I can see them, even hear their counsel – mostly the good and – intuitively – the bad.”
William felt the corned beef turn into yarn in his mouth. He chewed down, forcefully, trying to remind himself that this was real, that he was human, and that there really were two priests in his office who had asked to meet him, requested information on urgent cases, saw every kind of angel, and believed every word they said. No one would ever talk like this back in Boston, not without getting laughed at, sneered at, told to get a life. Not even Brownie – he would never mention angels or demons in pedestrian conversation, and he dealt with exorcism cases.
And then William remembered that someone had told him that the lines among the natural, supernatural, and supranatural were blurred in most Catholic countries. Talking about angels and demons was as routine as discussing the weather. Believing in the power of curses existed alongside believing in the power of people to direct their lives of their own accord. Seeing angels, it seemed, was part of the strangeness. It was interesting, from a research standpoint. From someone who wanted to go home, eat lasagna, and sleep to the tune of Netflix documentaries, it was annoying.
“I can see what happens when they meet,” he heard the Jesuit still talking, and saw Fr. Anthony out of the corner of his eye, still intent and unmoved, “The good and the bad will always be locked in battle. Always, until the End Times, when they fight a final war for humankind.”
William tried not to laugh. Fr. Matteo sounded like he was reading from a screenplay pitch, and was selling an idea for a supernatural thriller to investors who still lived in 1800s Rome.
“The battles are rather minor, like when you have two sides competing for dominance over a soul,” Fr. Matteo went on, after yet another pause, “Then you can have one angel versus another, maybe three against one – it’s hard to count when you have specters involved, but I can sense it, intuitively, how many they are.”
“Dominance over a soul,” William heard himself musing, and laughed within. He didn’t think he had the courage to speak so boldly, almost sarcastically, to a Jesuit priest, “You make it sound like we have no control over our actions, like we have puppetmasters playing with our strings.”
“Then think of angels as the cheerleaders who watch you play – except you have two different teams cheering you on,” Fr. Matteo retorted, never missing a beat, as though he had long known that William would speak flippantly, and had a ready response for attempts at trivializing his words, “You have your own free will to play the game – say, basketball. You want to shoot a three-pointer. It’s within your grasp, but you just can’t get to that side of the court without injuring somebody in your way. You have one side cheering you to shoot the basket no matter what, to get those three points, to focus on yourself, to achieve your goal as fast as possible -”
“To score without counting the human cost,” William cut in, feeling the craving for a dinner and peace snap into his patience, “And then you have one side telling you to make sure you don’t hurt anybody as you try to score your three points.”
Fr. Matteo shook his head, a smile turning up one side of his mouth. “You’re talking about the same side,” he spoke, almost musing, as though the man before him had been adjudged naive long before they had met, “The other side tells you to think of your teammates, of what they would look like if their teammate played a dirty game or was a cheat, of how they would perform on the court if you decided to do everything your own way.”
A familiar frost touched William’s nape, then quickly disappeared as warm air seemed to sweep out of nowhere. It was soothing, even welcome in the once biting air of his office; and somehow, Fr. Matteo was involved, or knew who was behind it – knew who was behind William.
“Is he with me?” William spoke up, but felt as though somebody far away were using his voice, speaking with sentences not of his choosing.
“Your guardian – I sense that she’s female, although there are no real sexes in the supranatural realm, not as we know them here on earth.”
Fr. Matteo spoke easily, as though he were merely commenting on the color of William’s shirt. William expected to cringe at what he believed was trivialization of a weighty issue. Instead, he felt his heart rate slow down, his limbs relax. Stop worrying, an inner voice told him, carrying the memories of his childhood with it. There was his mother and her breakfast of crispy bacon and toast slathered with butter, his father and a tattered copy of Alice in Wonderland that smelled vaguely of dusty wooden bookshelves, his house in the suburbs of Chicago and its shelter beneath blushing autumn leaves that painted everything gold in the dusk.
Stop worrying. This man is telling the truth, and he needs you.
William felt himself nod, felt his chewing slow down, finally felt the heat of the coffee as he sipped it. He felt his heart beating, this time with hope.
“I cannot tell you more about your angel,” Fr. Matteo went on, in the same level voice that seemed to halt any attempt at interruption, “Only that there is a gentle fierceness about her. She does not stop to talk. She’s too busy protecting you. You might sense her sometimes when she fights. She flies fast, and disappears even faster, like she is chasing a demon down. You might feel the chase as a warm blast of air.”
William had always felt it, indeed, that gust of desert wind that hardly stirred the hairs on the back of his neck. He felt it in his office, at that moment; walking amongst students in the university at dusk right after classes ended; roaming the northern Chicago streets as a child who loved to while away the summer afternoons with his playmates; at college, during his fieldwork – even graduate school, in that land far, far away that he had left behind, run from, fled from.
He liked that an angel was there. That she was there, even if he had fled. She was still with him.
They had said it at the funeral, after all: Heaven has won an angel to watch over us.
She chose to watch over him. Not anyone else. Not even the one who had destroyed her. Just him. Him. William. Him.
The fortune teller at the pier had told him as much. You have a lovely woman watching over you, this glowing and golden womam, this woman who is as strong as she was when she was alive. And she will guard you and keep you safe, so you must simply call her name and then you will feel her embrace you.
“What about the cold air?” He could hardly manage the words, but he finally felt that it was he who was asking the question.
Fr. Matteo’s eyes remained on William’s shoulder, “It could be any rank of demon,” the priest took a sip of coffee, eyes suddenly to the floor, “I can see the demons only through the good angels, and only intuitively. When an angel suddenly starts running, if you will; when it flies out, bares its sword if it’s a higher ranked angel – I know that they’re chasing a demon down. Sometimes the chase is long, when a demon is powerful, strong, drawn or summoned by a human. But mostly, the chases are quick, when people are generally having a good day, no temptations, no chance to gravely sin, too busy to think anything seriously evil. I saw that chase just now with you.”
William was almost tempted to accuse the priest of patronizing him, if not for the cloak of warmth that continued to surround him, like a shield. Fr. Matteo’s words sounded like remnants of his childhood, back when he sat in a pew and actually listened to the priest reading the gospel; and, later, when he sat up front and stared as the pretty girl from the next neighborhood read some letter Paul had written to anyone’s pick of ancient peoples. The conversation felt familiar; even the still quiet Fr. Anthony felt familiar, with his almost bald head and his glassy blue eyes that seemed to peer into the guardian angel that held William in her embrace.
The cloak of warmth was more familiar now, and he wanted it to be that way. He always wanted her to watch over him, to keep him company, to fight all his battles invisible for all time, the way he thought he would have done for her when she was alive.
He might just smile, but that would be too painful a task, too great a duty to demand. One step at a time, one day at a time, one good thing at a time, then maybe one day, he would smile. Really smile. Feel the edges of his mouth touch his eyes.
“There might be days when you feel angry, alone, frightened, tempted to lash out at the world,” Fr. Matteo chewed on a bite of the corned beef sandwich, and then swallowed it down, “That is when your guardian might fight to – cheer you on, as it were. It will always do its best to fight for you, the way it was ordered and ordained. The fight can be a chase, or it can be actual swords, spears, cavalry. A fight like that is alarming because it means that someone is fighting a great battle, and that person’s life – their soul – is in grave danger. That is exactly what I saw, and that is why – to cut to the chase – that is why we are here.”
William forgot about his own angel for the moment, “Today? You saw this all today?”
Fr. Matteo and Fr. Anthony nodded together.
“I’ve seen it once before,” Fr. Matteo spoke up almost too quickly, as though staving off any further ridicule by William, “I saw it years ago right before a student committed suicide in his dormitory off campus.”
William felt his blood run with shards of ice, just as a warm rush of air flooded his shoulders, and just as the vision came unbidden into his head.
A porch, midnight, a single light from within the house, the alternating blue and red lights that blinked back the dark form of a man pale, with rivulets of blood running down his arms. Knife raised high. Dogs howling in the distance. Cat baring its teeth at him, almost grinning, Cheshire-like, challenging him to a game of chess with human pieces.
And the blue and red lights continued to blink and play, blink and play, blink and play.
William squinted himself back to reality, to that very moment that Fr. Matteo continued to speak.
“I saw his guardian running, and – for the first time, overtaken – by – shadows,” Fr. Matteo’s voice was lower, deeper, “But his guardian fought, and I could sense the angel asking the child for help. Your angel will always need you to call it, to pray; but most important, it needs the strength of your will. This child had none.”
And again, the vision, of red and blue, and cats and dogs – of the knife bared and raised high that seemed to slash mockery into the summer evening. I just came from church but I can do this, the blade seemed to speak, and for the man who could only sputter what sounded like curses in a foreign language. A language older than time, Brownie called the mutterings; a language older than the idea of speech itself.
No one had been able to translate the words. No one had bothered to. She was dead. There was nothing to gain from the effort – except to flee, into worlds within, to lands far, far away.
“I asked my guardian angel to help this child, and – for my part – I tried to run to the boy, to talk to him,” Fr. Matteo went on, “But he disappeared and left before I could even think of moving my legs. I saw the battle moving with him, but then it disappeared too, so I assumed that it was done, that the soul had won, the battle was over.”
Fr. Anthony had been eating his share of dinner through Fr. Matteo’s story. The elder Jesuit ate as solemnly as he spoke and listened; even his silent chewing signaled disappointment in his younger ward. William marked a slight shake of the head, a low breath released, and blue eyes trained to the ground.
“I found out that he had killed himself as soon as he got home,” Fr. Matteo’s words seemed to be ground between his jaws, “He had a fight with his mother because he thought that she didn’t understand him, because she reminded him to take his medication. According to his classmates, he refused the medication because he wanted to spite her. They told him to drink the medication because he had to help himself; and then his classmates asked him to sit down by the fountain in front of the library to wait for them, because they would try to help him as soon as their classes were over -”
“Excuse me,” William had to cut in, and it took a great deal of effort to keep the rage out of his voice, “But how do you know this?”
Fr. Anthony spoke up this time, voice cold, as though he had resented William’s interruption, “We talked to the students as part of the grief counseling,” the priest gestured to William’s computer, “And they shared their story with the newspapers later. You can even read it online.”
William felt something rise in the back of his neck, like icy hackles, “You don’t just share stories like that,” he felt his voice deepen, with some other creature’s mouth, some other creature’s wrath, “You don’t share people’s grief and guilt just because they allow you to. Those stories are private, even if the people involved claim that they want everyone else to learn from their experience.”
Fr. Matteo’s eyes were upon him again, this time gentle, compassionate, even pitying. Something at the back of William’s head told him that the priest wanted him to calm down, to listen; the creature at the base of his tongue would not relent, and seemed to seethe at the sight of a man who was young in the skin, but aged in the eyes. Surely there was no wisdom there.
“How do you know that these angels of yours are not just your imagination?” William spoke, feeling the words bottlenecking at his throat, “How could anyone check if these angels really did fight some war, or if your kid didn’t kill himself because he was unstable without his meds? How would anyone know -”
“Because I doubt that even you would dismiss all this as mere frivolous storytelling, William,” Fr. Anthony finally interrupted him, voice as icy as the blue sea that pierced back at the psychiatrist, tone as calm as the waters that seemed to pour onto William’s anger and quell any more misgivings, “Because you’ve read the new guidelines in the Roman Ritual, and you know how to distinguish between dissociative disorders and actual cases for which no organic explanation can be made. Because you care for these students – you genuinely care for them, the same way you cared for all of Dr. Brown’s patients back in Boston, even if you were simply transcribing and analyzing the sessions, even if you were simply offering Dr. Brown your professional opinion in the capacity of a postdoctoral fellow. You genuinely care for people, and your care is genuine because you would also never, ever speak about yourself as caring.”
There was something in the way that the priests carried themselves that made William recall his own childhood, his own hours at mass, the dark confessional where he could not understand how a faraway, invisible god could reach into his heart and take away his sins (that was what his catechism teacher had told him). He couldn’t understand this business with angels and specters, but something in the way the priests spoke also told him that there was no complete understanding for anything on earth. He was fooling himself if he thought he could probe the blackest depths of reality to get to a truth.
“We’re on your side, William,” Fr. Anthony said, after a pause, a clap of thunder, and a sudden calming of the rain outside, “We’re on the same side. You might see the problem as a primarily biological, psychological flaw that rests in the individual. We see it as a constellation of forces that are complex, difficult to understand – humbling.”
And again, there was the vision, of the night that bayed with mad dogs, snarled with grinning cats. William was standing in the semi-darkness, in a sea of red and blue light, in the midst of whispering and mumbling and a call for someone to put his weapon down. There was rain, sharp, just like on this night; but it was light, caressing, as it dripped down William’s scalp and joined the tracks of his tears.
He remembered that he had never cried since then, never shed another tear, never felt the weight of both grief and anger bearing him down. It was a strange thing to recall, on a night like this, just as a mixture of warm and freezing air played with the back of his neck.
“You are also in a very different country, William,” Fr. Anthony continued, voice firm, blue eyes soft, “Although – I daresay the folk belief systems here might not be so different from where at least one of your parents came. If I might ask…?”
“South Korea,” William replied, surprised that he had not been offended by the question. Had he been elsewhere, and had his companions been anyone else, he would simply have glared at them, “My mother was second or third generation. I really never was that interested in her country.”
Fr. Anthony seemed taken aback, as though William had snarled the words out, “Very well, then, the Philippines,” even his voice seemed forcibly gentle, “Their world brings the supernatural to the real; it does not hesitate to speak of things that would otherwise remain secrets to those of us who were not raised here. We might protest at what we see as unjust; but in the end, we can only strive for understanding. We are not their saviors. We can only listen.”
The contradictions murmured at the back of William’s head, where he continued to see the vision, hear the mumbling, feel the heat of the light of the cars and the frozen fingers of the rain. They said that Henry had to be understood, not medicated; had to be counseled using words, and maybe prayers, not with chemicals; had to be watched all day by someone who could talk to him because he could hurt himself, and no one knew what he could do if left alone.
In the end, the understanding had done nothing.
It surprised William how an exorcist could be so relaxed about counseling, and not prescribe something more drastic, something that could actually change things, something that could drive out demons instead of mere promises of chants.
“My secretary knows how to reach you, so I’ll let you know if anyone comes in,” William said, brisk, trying not to read too deeply into Fr. Matteo’s stare at him. Maybe the angel was back. She would keep him safe; that much he liked to know, and he had the meeting to thank for the knowledge.
The priests stood up, said their goodbyes, repeated their apologies; William could not remember how he responded, only that Fr. Anthony asked the younger Jesuit to walk ahead, as he had to talk to the head of counseling for a little while longer.
“Perhaps consider emailing Bradley and Landon,” the elder Jesuit began, voice losing its firmness, “They would like that – and it would make them feel less alone in this country, knowing that they are near someone who they worked with once before.”
William barely remembered nodding. His fingers hovered over his computer keyboard, half in indication that he would obey Fr. Anthony’s request, half a sign that the priest should leave.
“And,” the priest went on, “The project – it isn’t over.”
“No research ever is,” William mused, suddenly remembering Agnes the research professor. She had said something about analyzing language, not as mere words, but as reality, a place imagined, a world constructed.
“Consider joining the project,” Fr. Anthony said, almost too suddenly for William, “We need people like you. Researchers, analysts -”
“A critical voice?” William wasn’t too keen on niceties or manners at the moment, and not when his dinner was long overdue, “Someone to be skeptical and wisecracking about everything?”
“Someone compassionate about the victim and the state of their soul,” Fr. Anthony finished, before William could make any further contradiction, “And don’t underestimate the power of skepticism – it can often lead us to questions that we never thought we could ask.”
“And curiosity killed the cat.”
“But satisfaction brought it back,” the priest completed the adage briskly, “Curiosity is also the mother that gave birth to the Jesuits. That – and a cannonball. Good evening. We shall meet again.”
William said something in the affirmative, much to his shock. He did not move for a moment, as he heard the priests leave the counseling office, as the sound of speeding cars and shouting students came more clearly through the glass panes of the windows, and as his secretary asked if he needed anything else for the evening.
“Thanks,” he managed, words scraping through a dry throat, “I’ll lock up. Go home. It’s raining out.”
“The rain stopped already, sir,” she answered simply, “You need to go home, too.”
“Yeah – I’ll finish – something,” and, as Fr. Anthony’s words came back to his memory, “It was quite a meeting. I’ll need to rest and be alone for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
He wasn’t sure if he had been too honest, or too tactless. The secretary seemed to be both surprised and thankful, or astonished and scandalized – whatever it was, it was gracious, and William was glad when she finally left the room. He sensed that she had made a bright goodbye, had reminded him to rest that weekend, had told him to stock up on groceries because this was a much stronger typhoon and he wouldn’t be going anywhere when it finally hit with its fullest force.
William remembered assenting to everything, and he did want to leave, but the email to the brothers could no longer wait. He couldn’t stand the thought of walking home slowly, in the sharp rain, in the midst of roiling winds, without writing the brothers first. Something told him to do it. Maybe it was her. His guardian angel.
His very own.
He opened up his email and ignored all the incoming messages. There were meeting alerts, quick notes from his friends in Boston, even a letter from a cousin who asked where he was, because his dad couldn’t reach him. William’s heart thumped in alarm for a moment; he had completely forgotten to tell his father that he had moved to the Philippines. It was harder to stay in touch with family when work was involved, but he promised himself that he would find a way to talk to Pop later.
First: the email.
It had to be quick, urgent, friendly. The brothers had always been accommodating, even before they had even met and had simply been names plastered to email messages that he had to respond to as part of his post doc routine. William took his job seriously, but not too seriously enough to shut out his friends.
He hit “Compose”, put in the email addresses of each of the Sheffield boys, and typed as fast as he could.
Hi, Landon, Bradley,
How are you doing? Where exactly in the Philippines are you? Turns out we’re in the same country now. Just took a job as head of counseling at the same university – believe it or not – that Fr. Anthony Lector’s at.
Met him today, btw; put a face to the name. Honestly: scary. He had a priest with him – name escapes me – who was really something. Will tell you more when I get the chance.
Tell me when we can catch up. Lots of meetings over here, but there’s always space to meet up.
He signed out immediately and packed his things. He had to leave before any new rains started up again, before anyone decided that they would go for last minute counseling because the counseling office lights were still on, and before any new thunderstorms would kill his evening entirely. The meeting hadn’t exactly been a waste, but it just wasn’t right, even if he was in a Catholic university, even if he had once worked on a project that had nearly torn his sense of logic limb from limb. Relying on visions, whether true or not – it just wasn’t right. Not for the students. Not for students who really, truly needed help.
To tell the truth: William did want to know what exactly Fr. Matteo (there was the name!) had seen, and where, and when – and what it could have meant, why it had been enough for the priest to ask for a meeting, and to even tow his Jesuit superior along. But something also told William that the students came first. Their welfare could not rest on specters or shadows.
God, his office was freezing.
He switched off all the lights and made his way to the grocery store, under a light shower of rain.