William awakened to the sound of birds twittering in a tree outside his window, the smell of coffee blundering its way into his nostrils, and an undefinable something that was savory and sweet all at once.
And then there was the Bradley-sized laugh that seemed to shake the house to the rhythm of clacking keyboard keys. William gathered, through his haze of half-awakening, that the brothers had engaged in a race to finish transcripts at dawn, and Bradley was losing, but not by much.
“Why don’t you just go get a second breakfast?” was his sneer, “Maybe you’ll be in a better mood!”
“Said Chubbs, as he plopped his round bottom onto his chair,” was the retort, somewhere closer to where William lay. It was Landon, voice level, words punctuated by the thrum of servers.
The noise did not bother William in the least. If anything, he felt the memories of his childhood home in Chicago walking into his bedroom, sitting at his side, and gently nudging him awake. He lay in bed a few minutes more, taking his time to look at everything around him: the plain, unadorned white cabinet built into the walls; a cheap mirror stained with black dots reflecting the rest of the sun-sheened room; the spot of color that marked where his backpack lay on the floor.
He remembered only drinking Scotch, being tired, and falling asleep as soon as he felt his body sink into the mattress. There were no memories, no dreams, no interrupted sleep.
It was a curious turn of events, for which William could offer no ready explanation.
There was nothing different about the house to warrant his sudden – relaxation was the word that came closest. The so-called Jesuit HQ was made almost entirely of wood, the way most houses were in suburban Chicago, save that the gardens of the Lipa house were dotted with white hibiscus, and shaking with the chirps of newer, seemingly more colorful birds. There was nothing different about his narrow mattress, or the sheets that smelled of flowery detergent, or the sound that the wooden frame of his bed made as he sat up and felt the sunlight send its smoky glare across the curtains.
But there was something different, something since last night that he couldn’t place. Had he been more spiritual, he would have dared to call it peace.
Peace – yes, perhaps. Even with Bradley drunk and acting (almost quite literally) like a pimp, even with the thought that he had nearly given away a woman whom he hardly knew to boys he also hardly knew, and all in front of a Jesuit priest, good God! – he felt peace.
Then again, the concept – the construct – of peace was too complex, too abstract, to be felt and labeled so quickly. Maybe it was a hangover from the few sips of Scotch, or the adobo, or simply being somewhere else after traveling for hours with someone other than his co-workers.
William shook off the last thought and showered in the bathroom attached to his room. The water woke him out of his ponderings; the smell of soap recalled the smell of his office when everyone came to work too early, and looked as though they had simply taken a bath next door; and the dull green tiles made him think of the moldy streets he had seen from the train as it sped across the old capital city of Manila. When he emerged from his morning bath, all changed and freshened, he simply left his room, crossed the house, passed the Sheffield brothers bent onto their work, and waded through the exchange of insults and puns between a laughing Landon and sneering Bradley. He seemed to be at home, careless, carefree, among things near and familiar.
The only new thing that appeared, out of the singing servers and the brothers’ bickering, was a breakfast that had rice in it.
“Good morning, Dr. Lambskeep, and welcome to the pre-lunch game of Transcription Monster,” Bradley announced from across the wall, “Forgive me for my drunken state last night, for I must have embarrassed myself and my brother.”
“Speak for yourself,” was the retort from Landon; then, to William, “Breakfast is on the table. Eat!”
“Breakfast comes courtesy of the chef!” Bradley added, “Tell him what it is, Landon!”
“Tocino,” Landon obliged.
“Tell him more!”
“Then stop working!”
“Damn this race!”
William laughed, as the brothers clacked away on their keyboards, as Landon declared that he had finished another file, as Bradley (presumably) looked over and declared that the file was only five minutes long and was therefore “easy enough for any baboon to cough out”, so Landon therefore had to go explain to William what the food was. And then there was more sneering and jeering, peppered with the occasional curse, salted crisply by the sharp stabs of fingers onto keyboards.
“Tocino is pork boiled with salt and sugar,” came from behind William, where a back door opened into the kitchen, and from which PJ entered, “We usually have it for breakfast. Good morning!”
William said something between good morning and thanks, and yawned as he took a chair at the table.
PJ on the other hand, was sprightly, but with hardly a visible bounce in his steps, “This is a good neighborhood to run in, if you like running,” the young priest opened the refrigerator and began to take out pitchers of cold water, “I’ll join you for breakfast in a bit. Get started. Eat the tocino with rice and egg.”
Had the order been made by anyone else, William would have refused breakfast, asked to go to the nearest Starbucks, and bought a coffee and a sandwich. There was something about PJ, however, that made William spoon some rice onto a plate in front of him, and then take an oily egg cooked sunny side up from a shallow bowl. There was something about the Jesuit that made him scoop a heap of the dark brown, pink tocino and add it to his food.
PJ was not even recognizable as a priest: he was in white shorts and a shirt, and looked like any other runner who had made morning runs their habit since they were old enough to walk. And yet there was something about him that made William follow his lead, with the same spirit of a child waiting for a blessing at the confessional, with nearly the same readiness that he had accorded Agnes the day before.
“If you’re not used to sweet things in your Asian breakfast, then go easy,” PJ seemed to be on the verge of either laughing or warning William about something, but William still found himself taking a spoonful of a combination of meat, egg, and rice.
He did not expect the pork to be tender, or the sweetness of the meat to go so well with the saltiness of the egg, or even the rice to taste mildly (deliciously) of garlic. William found himself eating another bite, chewing on every piece, swallowing down what seemed to be an unnaturally good mixture of sweet, salty, and savory that was unlike anything he had ever had before.
He had time enough to look up at the clock on the wall. It was 8:30 in the morning: later by his work standards, but with more than enough sleep and, now, food, than he had ever had since he had arrived in the Philippines.
“I’m assuming you like it?” PJ said slowly, as he laid a mug of coffee next to William’s plate, then took a chair across from the guest.
William could only raise one thumb in reply. Where had he learned to be so terse, he wondered, and quite bluntly so?
“Landon makes really good tocino,” PJ drank from a tall glass of water, and consumed half of it in one go, “We’ve had it nearly every day for breakfast since I got here.”
“Looks like he has a gift for cooking,” was all that William could say, as he cleaned out his plate, “I honestly haven’t had this much to eat in a while.”
PJ smiled, with a different brand of warmth compared to Agnes’, but with an air of what William decided to call a combination of peace and authority. The young priest pointed, subtly and with no effort, to the mug of coffee, and William found himself taking it with the urgency of a boy who had been told by his father to drink his vitamins.
The coffee was strong, just the way he needed it, and far better than the dark water he had at the Starbucks in Manila.
“Fresh from the farms of Lipa,” PJ finished the last of his water, then leaned back in his chair, seemingly amused at the sight of William cleaning out nearly every single grain of rice from his plate, “You should take some home. We’ve got a lot here, and I don’t think Landon or Bradley need any more.”
The bickering had stopped, but the typing continued. William heard Landon get up, pace the living room, open boxes, and riffle through piles of papers.
“They’re doing a last review,” PJ spoke, taking a smaller plate from a pile next to the sink, then filling it up with egg and tocino, “Most of the recordings are already transcribed. They’re just combining all the transcripts so they know who said what exactly when, and where, with what tone, or language, or voice.”
“And it’s your job to map those combined transcripts, I’m guessing?” William sipped his coffee slowly, as Landon sat down noisily in the other room and resumed his work. Then, when PJ nodded, “No wonder the work was brought all the way out here.”
PJ seemed surprised, “Oh – why?” He paused mid-chew, “What have you – heard?”
“Uh – nothing,” William felt as though he had been caught in the middle of either a lie or gossip, “I – assumed that it was a lot of work to match up all the transcripts, so you all need to be as far away from the city as possible. Away from distraction, pollution, traffic, all that? Right?”
PJ shook his head, grave, as he chewed on his breakfast.
“The Virgin Mary’s protection, then?”
PJ raised one finger, a signal that William had to wait.
“Oh,” William found himself saying, as the Jesuit proceeded to finish his meal with a loud swallow of the eggs, with nary a clatter of silverware, and then an almost simultaneous spring out of his seat to the sink, “There are – cases.”
PJ held up yet another hand, as he took but seconds to finish the task of grabbing William’s empty breakfast plate, washing it along with the rest of his breakfast things, and stacking everything into their proper places by the sink. Then, he squeezed the sponge free of water and soap, popped it into a microwave oven in the corner, and proceeded to heat it up.
“Kills germs,” PJ said, mostly to the floor.
William could only sip his coffee. He wondered if everyone who worked at the university moved with the same marked precision. For some reason, PJ’s efficiency reminded him of his secretary’s ability to whip up whole meetings, complete with food, in mere minutes.
When the timer finally beeped, PJ took the sponge out of the microwave, and returned it to the sink. He sat in his chair, all movements so fluid, it appeared as though he had choreographed them precisely to silence his listener and prepare them to listen closely to the lecture that would follow.
“What I’m about to tell you is both public knowledge and filed away for members of the research team,” PJ began, “Please be careful who you share this with. I trust you because you do work with the Sheffield brothers, so you’ll need to be up to speed.”
William sat quietly, and made no protest. He was not sure if something had been lost in translation, but he was quite certain that he had never told the boys that he would work with them, and he knew that he had never told the Jesuit that he had published papers on his research work. And yet, he did not speak further; a part of him thought there was gossip coming and reveled in the little bit of excitement that inevitably came with secret knowledge; the other part thought that yes, perhaps, there was research to be done here, all the way out in the Far, Far Away he had so yearned for.
“So – yes – let’s talk about Lipa,” PJ rested one hand on the table, and held a mug of coffee with the other. William felt his heart stop for a moment, as PJ named the town, but with a voice muted by the twittering of birds outside, so that the consonants were softer, “This is quite a well-known place. Are you sure you’ve never heard of it?”
William shook his head.
“All right, then – Lipa,” PJ went on, allowing the birds to quiet down before he said another word, “I’ll make the history short. Lipa is the home of Mary Mediatrix of all Grace. Does the title sound familiar?”
There were so many titles for the Mother of God, and William swore he didn’t remember this one. Then, the day before slowly came back.
“Yes – I heard about it just yesterday,” William said, “Someone on our staff says his wife prays to her?”
“There is a devotion to her, yes,” PJ poured himself some water, “The whole thing started in 1948 – there was this local nun, in a convent not far from here. She was a Carmelite, a novice named Sr. Teresita.
“She said she saw the Virgin Mary. She got this shower of rose petals with the image of the Virgin and Jesus, there were messages from the Virgin, there were all these prayers, even gold dust, Marian dust they said – and then everything got big fast.
“Word got around, and if you can imagine how deep the Philippines is in its Catholic faith, then you can imagine how many people started to come here.
“There were all these pilgrimages by the busload, whole church congregations came on weekends, everyone who had a name, or needed to be seen, came. They wanted the Virgin Mary’s vote of confidence.”
William could feel his mouth curling into a wince. He had, indeed, seen how the country loved its faith, but he also heard the students talk about feeling as though they had been shut out of their own house, how the faith they had grown up with wasn’t growing along with them, how the rest of the world beckoned freedom while the church seemed to smile while holding up chains.
PJ, by some sweep of his arms, retrieved a glass from a cupboard and poured William some cold water, “So people kept coming in, and you can also imagine how scared the church was. What if people were following something – well, evil? What if this was one of those cases where everything was good at the start, and then everything would fall apart after something evil trapped everyone?”
“I find it a bit hard to accept that – notion,” William had to speak up, or his grimace would never right itself, “I know that not everything that looks good is good. Got that from catechism. But this default position of ‘everything is evil until proven good’ doesn’t sound like how a Christian institution should operate.”
William wanted to laugh. He thought he had forgotten all his lessons, and he never knew he had a non-scholarly opinion on church teachings until PJ had seemingly pulled it out of him.
If PJ was irritated, he hardly showed it. When he next spoke, he was gentle, sailing on words rather than wielding them as weapons.
“I’m not sure if you can call it a default position, but I’m pretty sure it’s a cautious approach,” he said, pouring William another cup of coffee, “You need a cautious approach, a long term mode of thinking, and a lot of patience for something like this, something like supernatural phenomena. You need that exact same approach when you teach, when you do research, and – I don’t know if I’m right about this – when you do therapy.”
Whether or not PJ was completely right, or right in essence, or right in logical progression, William was not sure. The young Jesuit had touched a memory that William did not even know he had, of lessons in the classroom, some seminar on pedagogy, something that Brownie had said about a patient – it was about the long term nature of care, a weaning and an easing. Nothing directly to do with seeing evil, but there was something about patience and examination, about waiting and reading deep, that the Jesuit had spoken with persuasive – and pacifying – exactness.
“So anyway – apparitions,” PJ continued, still unassuming, still serene as he spoke, “The church launched an investigation. The Jesuits led the team. They interviewed people, got the whole story from start to end, or at least the current end. Then they wrote a report. I don’t have all the details on how the Vatican was involved, but it had to be, because this was a big case and you couldn’t just do an internal audit without consulting all the big offices.
“So there’s this big report, and everyone waits.
“Short version: the report said there was a lot of room for debate, and even doubt. One of the things that bothered the team was the visionary, Sr. Teresita. She didn’t see the Virgin Mary first. Her very first vision – she saw the devil.”
William felt something crumple in his chest. He was not sure if it was fear or irritation at what seemed to be disproportionate suspicion by a church that housed its own brand of demons (and solved its possession by moving those demons from one parish to another instead of casting them out completely).
But the thought of seeing a devil – the devil. Something in his childhood came to the fore, peeked at him from out of the corner of his eye, darkened his gaze and drew back the memory of that evening years before. Blood, blue and red lights, dogs and cats – but the memory was too tiny, too faint to be regarded, too faded to be thought of as his own.
William found himself listening to the Jesuit.
“If you start a visionary’s journey, shall we say, by seeing the devil, then you can’t be sure about the vision of the Virgin Mary later because it might still be Satan in disguise,” even PJ seemed uneasy as he spoke the words “devil” and “Satan”, “Or, and this comes from one of the Jesuit investigators: you can’t be sure that the vision of the Virgin Mary later is your own mind’s way of dealing with the earlier stress of seeing something as distressing as the devil himself.”
William could not argue with the last point. He sipped his coffee, gathering his own thoughts through the taste of both caffeine and a hint of chocolate on his tongue.
“And then there was the issue of the miracle,” PJ sighed, eyes to the ceiling, as though he were reading the contents of a case file there, “One of the bishops, I think, said that he wanted a sign that this was all real. Suddenly, the sister goes blind, and the Virgin apparently tells her that she can regain her sight only if her prioress – that’s the head of her convent – if her prioress kisses her on the eyes.
“The prioress obeys, and the sister gets her eyesight back,” even in his skepticism, PJ was gentle, “The bishop throws his support behind the apparition, but this miracle – it’s hard to double check. The doctors in Manila suggested that maybe the sister didn’t really go blind. There was nothing to cure.”
William had been thinking the exact same thing. He was almost tempted to laugh; he drank more coffee instead.
“But there was something bigger, something bigger than just suspicion of a fake miracle,” PJ paused, as Landon and Bradley argued in the other room. The exchange lasted no more than a few seconds before Bradley announced that the race was on once again, so that the whole house fell quiet, “Anything supernatural can make a ‘miracle’ happen as part of its snare, its strategy. This miracle was suspect because it looked like the Virgin Mary was ordering people to do things, to somehow be a part of the miracle – and that was, still is, dangerous.”
“Pride,” PJ replied, “‘Look at me, I can help the Virgin Mary heal people.’ That’s why the church has to watch and wait for a while. A miracle is here and now, but you have to see the fruits of the miracle to discern if it was divine – or not – in origin.
“So anyway, it’s 1951, and the report says there’s doubt. The church errs on the side of caution and judges the Lipa apparition non-supernatural – not a genuine apparition, the way you have Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Akita.”
The names drew out William’s memories again, of long hallways lined with plaster statues, of candlelight that turned a blue sash into faded gray, of posters that showed the shadows of three youngsters within the blinding spectre of a woman in white. He often wondered, as a boy, what he would have done, had he been in their place. Would he have stopped? Listened? Run home to tell his parents? Falling to his knees in prayer wasn’t a viable option, even back then.
“Uproar,” PJ had apparently walked out after his last sentence, and had walked back in, this time with a pile of fresh printouts, “People were mad at priests, at the Vatican, at the bishops. Then there was this story that the psychiatrists who evaluated Sr. Teresita had tried to make her sign a document that said she was faking everything because she just wanted attention.”
William snapped out of his thoughts, “Did they?”
PJ shrugged as he sorted sheets, “Nobody knows, and no one has proof,” he began marking sheets with checks as he spoke, “And then a priest claimed later that the investigators confessed on their deathbeds that they were forced to judge Lipa as a negative apparition. Nobody knows who supposedly coerced them. Gossip doesn’t have the details you’ll need to make judgement; only the details you’ll need to spread the word. So anyway: the priest wanted the case reopened.”
“So was it gossip?” William finished the last of his coffee.
“Well – without an affidavit, it’s all hearsay,” PJ was about to refill the cup, but William kept his hand over it. The Jesuit took the cup and washed it instead, again with silent dexterity that made William simply sit back and listen to the story, “They did reopen the case in the 90s, filed new papers, did interviews and all. A local bishop announced that it was genuine. The Vatican overruled him just last year. It’s been decades of approvals and disapprovals, local bishops contradicting the Vatican – and people still keep coming in for pilgrimages. It’s not as crowded as it once was, but people still keep coming.”
William could feel his irritation bubble to the surface once more, could sense it meet the spike of energy that the coffee gave. He looked at the clock, marked that it was close to 10 am, and finally felt the warming noon creep into the house. He realized that he had never felt the Philippine heat, never really sat in it long enough to appreciate how it made him drink a whole glass of water without thinking. He had always been at meetings, in his condo, in his office, in an enclosed space with air conditioning to keep him away from the outside world.
“So – what happened to the nun?” William asked, looking at PJ’s printouts, which, yet again, appeared as though a printer had simply coughed out the frameworks with little to no effort.
“She died in 2016 – just last year,” PJ replied, a little too offhandedly, William felt, for a priest talking about a fellow religious, “She left the convent a few years after the visions. She had to move up from being a novice, which she wasn’t able to do, so she had to leave.”
The priest’s tone was cold at the outset, but William could sense that PJ pitied the visionary. William, for his part, did not know what to think: there we no affidavits, documents, formal investigations – there was no fair judgment to be had on mere whispers.
And yet people kept coming, even when there was no approved apparition. He was irritated on many fronts, all of them, he guessed, stemming from a cultural milieu that messed with how people behaved.
“So – has anyone looked at the first investigation or tried to update the files?” He asked, not quite sure where to begin with his questions, and not quite sure whether he actually had any worth asking.
“We have only the Jesuits’ contribution to the main case file – but the real document is stored at the Vatican. It would be impossible to review the entire first investigation,” PJ sighed between sheets of frameworks, as though merely seeing grayed out ink was enough to drain him of what little patience he still had, “The Vatican documents won’t be released to the public until 2031.”
William huffed, “Of course.”
“Of course what?” Was the almost instant reply from PJ, so that William felt a twinge of fear pierce his heart.
The Jesuit laid the sheets and pen down, placed both his arms on the table, folded his hands, and looked William straight in the eye.
It was not a question of curiosity; it was a challenge.
Had his companion been anyone else, William would have quieted himself, said, “Never mind,” or, “No big deal,” and changed the subject. There really was something about PJ, and William was sure of it now; there was something in the young priest that made people trust him, speak out, and confess. He had a rare gift, one that psychotherapists could only dream of having.
“It feels like the church lives on secrets, likes keeping things, shuts up and turns around when people ask questions, and prays when people really need actual help,” William found himself saying, pouring the words out, not for the purpose of accusing, but unburdening, as though he thought the young Jesuit could help him, “The act of not releasing documents sounds like the church wants to protect its interests. I don’t know enough about the case, but I hear about others like it all the time, and the secrecy isn’t helping you. It isn’t bringing more people into the pews. It’s emptying them.”
A tiny smile played on PJ’s mouth; William could not read the priest’s countenance, and could not decide whether PJ was laughing at his naivete, or resigned and exhausted at having to deal with both a pile of unpromising research and a persistent, apparently lapsed Catholic, all bearing down on him on a hot Saturday morning.
“I agree with you,” PJ said, after what felt like years.
William had no answer to that.
In the living room, Bradley and Landon talked about overlapping lines of text, and alternated their consults with each other with loud (often naughty) insults. In the garden at the front of the house, William could hear birds rocking the low boughs of the trees, or stirring the hibiscus bushes. In the back of the house, there seemed to be a road through which a variety of cars and talking people passed, creating a wall of muffled sound.
And yet the kitchen and dining room were strangely quiet.
“I agree with you,” PJ repeated, as the steady clacking of keyboards resumed in the other room, as the birds calmed in the gardens, and as the traffic on the road behind the house purred down into mere engine bleats, “But I also agree that it’s a problem that can’t be solved in one investigation of one apparition, and simply because it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time. It’s a problem that comes from inequalities and colonization, years of history, and the church sometimes being at the head of the colonizing.
“Would you release your students’ files to just anyone?”
“What? No! Wait – I – well,” William was also not ready for a question to be thrown back at him, “Of course not! No.”
Again, the tiny smile on PJ’s mouth. “The church practices the same prudence, maybe in a different way, under a different name, with a different history,” the Jesuit’s voice had a hint of impatience in it, not to berate the listener it seemed, but to drive a much larger point home, and sooner, “That doesn’t excuse the abuse and corruption, but we wouldn’t simply bend the rules for protecting people’s identities and sealing investigations just because other rules were bent in the same institution.
“Would you release your patient’s files to just anyone if you were working in a hospital accused of abuse and corruption?”
“No,” this time, William was ready to be confronted.
“You’d protect the case,” PJ attempted to finish for him.
“The patient,” William corrected the Jesuit, “I’d protect the patient.”
PJ nodded once, “Then I hope you understand why there are some things that need to be kept first and left to the experts,” he paused, looked through his pile of sheets, and sighed. Every single sheet that met the morning showed a sleepy printer, washed out ink, almost nothing to show connections.
“Hours of adjusting code, still nothing,” PJ released what sounded like a sniff and a groan, “Guess I’ll wait for the rest of the transcripts. In the meantime – I wasn’t done with the Lipa story.”
William was curious. At any other time, he would have been irritated by how PJ had corrected him, how his opinions seemed both strongly strongly bound into facts but floating in darkness, how he simply listened. This time, however, he felt calm, even enlightened.
“The short version of it is: evil is most hard working in places where good things dwell,” PJ began once more, setting the sheets aside and facing William, “But evil also dwells where evil has taken root.
“So if you suddenly have a lot of possession cases in a place that’s still under investigation, then how do you judge that place?”
William felt a familiar chill, one that puttered on tiny, trembling feet, up his legs, through his spine, into his arms, deep into his fingers. It was the same chill that greeted him when he first spoke to Brownie about the project, when he looked at his first exorcism transcript, when he first faced Fr. Anthony and Fr. Matteo in his office and heard of a world of angels and demons so deeply intertwined with his.
Mrs. Brown had said something like it, indeed, of how any site of supernatural power also attracted all entities, both evil and good. But the way PJ had spoken the words “suddenly” and “a lot” made him think of a town that exceeded the limits of his expectations – a town that surpassed the boundaries of what he felt were his merely constructed fears.
The fear dripped its imaginary sweat down one temple.
“That’s Lipa,” William said, voice low.
PJ nodded, paused, as though waiting for the Sheffield boys to come in and interrupt him. When the keyboards simply continued to clack, and the servers continued to hum, he spoke.
“Yes, it was and still is Lipa,” PJ intoned, voice as level as before, “The Jesuits have been here for decades. They sometimes came to minister; there was a time they could still do research on the files. But in these last few years, there has been less research, more ministering. The cases last much longer, and sometimes we get new cases as quickly as we resolve the old ones. We’re now looking at an average of one new case per month.”
The chill gradually warmed into an inward sneer. The Jesuits were so quick to judge evil, William thought, so eager to see it appear out of every corner, so cavalier in talking about cases on average when the assessment process took so long to carry out.
As though in answer, PJ lifted a folder off the chair next to him. He pushed it toward William’s side of the table.
“The Sheffield brothers were invited to Lipa precisely because their work fits neatly with the work that we want to do here,” was the Jesuit’s almost hesitant sentence, with the “we” spoken so reluctantly, PJ sounded as though he had choked on the word, “The cases have always been recorded but never completely transcribed and annotated. This house has all the audio recordings and handwritten notes that the Jesuits have gathered since the 50s. Some are in that folder.”
“Landon and Bradley are in charge of completing all the files, from the U.S. to the Philippines. My job is to refine the algorithms and mapping instruments, using Lipa as the sample, so to speak.”
“And when you have the right instrument, then you can tour the country and help in the analysis,” William finished for the boy.
PJ had not lost his unease with the idea that he was being recruited for the project, “We’ll see,” it was the first time William saw PJ actually smile when the project was brought up, “I have to finish my papers first, and then teach next semester.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Hardly. We don’t even have a complete research proposal. I don’t know what will happen after I finish going through all the transcripts and still find nothing.”
PJ laughed at his last words, more exasperated, it seemed, than amused. William was starting to get this dimension of the Filipino sense of humor: people in the country laughed when they were happy with the current situation, regretful of the past, anxious about the future, or generally on the verge of jitters that threatened to disrupt what they generally perceived as the peace.
He had felt himself a poor navigator through conversations at the office sometimes, when there seemed to be too much laughter punctuating what should have been conversations drawn downward by the gravitas of urgency. For the first time, he felt at ease, an actual participant in a sober exchange of words.
“Is that what you’re afraid of?” William did not even look at the folder, still waiting in the middle of the table, “That there isn’t a plan for the project, that you might end up with no instrument?”
PJ shook his head briskly, “Exorcism is a ministry that I don’t think I have a calling for,” the priest motioned to the folder once again, in another bid to invite William to open it, “And yes, I know my spiritual adviser, and the Sheffields, and now, you – everyone who knows my work is telling me that it’s the most unwilling priests that make the best priests for the job. But I also think that the best priests are those that have an actual calling, an investment – something in them telling them that they are not worthy, but they have the strength.”
William could feel PJ stumbling over the words; whether it was from an inability to articulate his thoughts in English, or actual irritation at the world’s push toward the ministry, Wiliam could not tell. He also had no words for the Jesuit: PJ needed some calm, time away from data that seemed to sneer at his efforts, a ministry that didn’t need the boy to keep doing what seemed to be fruitless research.
To tell the truth, William could feel that there was a calling, but PJ was afraid of something else. It was tempting to draw the answer out that morning, but the Jesuit seemed uneasy to speak further, and had kept half his gaze on the pile of printouts.
“I’ve been fourth, fifth assistant at exorcisms here,” PJ spoke, low, taking a sheet from the pile once again, “I’m assigned to study the big cases, but watch only the small cases, the minor demons, they’re called. The worst I’ve seen here is a girl coughing up black phlegm. I haven’t helped at the worst sessions – and I’ve seen worse – anyway – I’m not allowed to help yet. But I know that the rites are the same, the prayers are almost the same – I just feel so far away from it all.”
“Protected?” William ventured.
PJ seemed taken aback, “Alienated,” he said, but with far less certitude, “I – never thought I – well – but – I just feel like I’m in another – room.”
The kitchen fell silent once again, but this time, there was a simmering unease, an indefinable rush of words that seemed to be waiting their turn to break down the floodgates. There had been warmth until then, in the kitchen through which stray wisps of sunlight fell; but as time wore on, as PJ began to look at his sheets again, and as William simply looked away and examined a water stain on the nearest wall – a blade of cold sliced the air, almost imperceptible had William not ever come to know a Fr. Matteo who could see angels, and had told him of the identity of his guardian.
In the other room, keyboards clacked, servers thrummed out their work, and the floorboards creaked as one of the brothers paced the floors. In the roads outside, footsteps cracked pebbles, cars broke into the dust, stray dogs barked their own tune in bursting, croaking staccato. In the garden out front, birds of all songs and melodies hummed and sang out their choruses with the exuberance of a spring morning.
And finally, PJ stood up.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not meeting William’s eyes, “Excuse me, but I have to go for a quick run. I’ll be back before lunch.”
The Jesuit was out the door in mere seconds.