The Sheffield brothers were, therefore, the bright light of Alfonso’s stay at the Lipa Jesuit HQ. His mornings opened with breakfast courtesy of Landon – often sweet, juicy tocino – a cup of strong Batangas coffee, and banter from across the kitchen wall as the boys raced to finish their transcripts on the Vatican’s deadlines. His evenings closed with water or scotch, and a variety of stories courtesy of Bradley, who remembered nearly every detail of the exorcism project with Fr. Anthony as it crossed continents and state lines. Alfonso saw the Pope as a solicitous uncle, Fr. Anthony as a gentle boss, and different doctors and priests and therapists around the world as players in stories that were as diverse as they were bewildering.
Once, he thought of matching Agnes with either brother, but realized that the boys would forever be boys: loving the church and its work, happy with how they were serving the Vatican, innocent in their earnestness, joyful in their bubble of hope. And he relished the hours he spent with them, because – and this was the third thing in which he took refuge – he believed, increasingly so, that his calling was not in the ministry of exorcism.
He felt it every time he stared at nearly blank printouts, in those hours between Landon’s breakfast creations and Bradley’s nightly stories. He felt it every time he went out for a run in the back roads of Lipa, every time he served at sessions with Fr. Anthony. He felt that he was a scientist watching from behind the two-way glass, taking notes, reading from a textbook, consulting a journal article, nodding as he understood the phenomenon, shaking his head as his plans fell apart. He felt that he was typing mere words, working under the orders of mere slashes and hyphens and brackets and braces. On his vacation weeks, he felt no urge, no excitement to tell his brothers about his work; only the need to sleep, to read something un-theological, un-intellectual, un-exorcism.
And yet there were theology papers to be written, and the task could not be so easily given up. Perhaps he could write about his experience, minus the math; or he could simply write that current mathematical models fell short at explaining or predicting or encapsulating the phenomenon. He had all but given up, had spoken loosely of his despair, truth be told, on days when the printouts looked as though the paper had simply passed through the printer for a quick smoothening; had sighed out his dread as he ate breakfast and stared at his mess of scripts; had sniffed about his failed attempts at linking words and thoughts between sips of scotch and despite Bradley’s encouragement that, “All will be well, PJ! You’ll see something!”
So Alfonso did as he had to, as he planned to, as he needed to. He sifted and scripted through decades of sessions that all but spilled out of the boxes that carpeted the living room of the Jesuit HQ. He fed transcripts into his codes, edited the codes, re-edited them, fought not to throw his computer in the trash bin when all his coding skills seemed to be useless. All will be well, PJ. You’ll see something.
It took but a few words from a newcomer one Saturday afternoon, three months into his stay in Lipa – it took but a few words for Alfonso to remember what had drawn him to the ministry.
Waiting. No control. Leaving the frayed threads to examine the tapestry. A moment perfected for him, created for him to see that all was not lost when a God of surprises was watching.
Because there was a hidden fourth reason.
It was a reason not unknown; he had simply tried to suppress it beneath his fears.
He was not watching exorcisms from another place, another body, another world. He was watching the sessions as someone protected – and perhaps – and frighteningly so – as a general who had a mission and would therefore not be so quickly assailed. The protection had not come with Fr. Anthony’s prayers on the last few days of his Regency, when the old exorcist promised that he would teach the young priest to put on the armor of God. The protection seemed older, made him watch the world with eyes that loved everything he saw, precisely because he could only see it through a veil of goodness that had been shielding him all his life.
So Alfonso did what he always did when perturbed and confronted by worries over which he had no control. He ran, with all his might and his force and his strength and his sinew – he ran through streets, through groves, through sunlight and shade, through wind and dry weather, through the storms of thoughts that raced across his imagination.
And he ran straight into an exorcism, straight into the newcomer’s past, straight into what he thought he would escape from. He ran into someone who needed his help, someone who begged for prayers, someone who needed him when everyone else had seemingly disappeared.
On that afternoon, he found himself equipped with the armor, and yet wanting in a weapon that he did not expect to need.
His math was nowhere to be found, nowhere to be called upon when the victim, the poor girl began mumbling a sentence in Italian. Alfonso had no choice but to open his phone, go to chat, and turn to Agnes for help. He did his best to hear the victim’s words, but could only type in syllables that seemed to make no sense even with his basic grasp of the language.
Agnes’ reply was swift; had he not been watching the room and keeping his Roman Ritual ready, he would have laughed.
I think you mean: Non torturarci, ma siamo orgoglioso che questo bambino voglia ancora il suo papa morto was the answer, followed by, Literal translation: Don’t torture us, but we are proud that this boy still wants his dead father. Why do you always pick the weird Italian sentences? First the mafia, now a TV drama.
Alfonso did not know how to answer her, so he allowed Agnes to talk, which Agnes did in spades when she relished what she was doing.
It’s doubly weird because you don’t put a close family relative after an article and a possessive. So what you’re actually saying is Papa, a pope. Don’t torture us, but we are proud that this boy still wants his dead Pope.
Alfonso recalled the godfather who had exorcised Bradley, the uncle whom Landon spoke of fondly, the best friend that Fr. Anthony conversed with in broken Spanish crisp with an American accent.
That makes no sense Alfonso had to type, if only to keep his hands from trembling in the sudden blast of cold in the room.
WAIT! Agnes added, There’s this saying: morto un Papa, se ne fa un altro. When the pope dies, another one is made. I’ve seen it used to signify “no one is indispensable” BUT it’s also a figurative phrase for the best of breakup scenarios: there are plenty more fish in the sea. Totally my motto now!
Again, Alfonso wanted to laugh, but the air around him seemed to weigh him down, and the girl’s voice grew even more distinct, so sharp, he could hear the chorus of the souls wailing to be set free from their chains beneath the earth.
So maybe Agnes continued, a breath of innocence in a rapidly dying afternoon, Whoever is talking is saying that the boy is still holding a torch for someone he loved long ago – the dead pope.
Alfonso could not help looking at William, who, by then, was talking about school with the girl on the bed.
I’m also guessing it’s not just holding a torch Agnes’ message blinked Alfonso’s phone alive, It’s obsession, but for someone who rejected him, maybe someone dead to him? Not sure if I should take the ‘dead’ part too literally, but it could also mean that this bambino is pining after someone who died.
And woah – bambino means kid. We’re talking child. And the questo makes it sound so condescending. Like you’d say ‘kids nowadays’. Say it in the tone of ‘this kid’. It’s like he’s being mocked for still liking someone long gone.
BUT WAIT the speed at which Agnes could think and type was astounding, even to the increasingly worried Alfonso, I need to talk about the ‘proud’ part. It’s like they admire him for liking someone long gone, like they’re happy that he’s wasting his life away? What is this drama – I must watch it!
Oy Alfonso: are you all right? Sorry. Get me started on Italian and I’ll spout everything I know. Off to make students’ lives miserable now! Ciao!
At that moment, Hell almost quite literally broke loose, and Alfonso completely forgot to reply to Agnes. He hoped that she would not resent him, would not ask what exactly he had asked her help for, would not ask where he was. He also hoped that his reply – “Thank you! Just saw the phrase, so thought I’d ask” – was neither cold nor terse. It was the best that his mind could conjure as he sat and listened to William in the library, and finally heard about the memories the demons had fished out.
In truth, Alfonso wished he had Agnes’ sunshine that afternoon, as the demon revealed itself and nearly wrecked the house, as he oversaw William’s interview with the family, and as he – and a host of raging diabolical voices – greeted a disgruntled, but relieved Fr. Anthony.
“Car broke down six times, and it is now 6 PM,” the old exorcist ignored the curses from the walls. He embraced Alfonso, then whispered into the boy’s ear, “Now sit, rest, and don’t make me tell you six times.”
Everyone was too busy preparing the girl’s room to notice that Fr. Anthony had seated the young priest down in a chair in a corner. Only Bradley and Landon had marked Fr. Anthony’s movements; and, as though borne of habit, quickly rearranged their computer desks, equipment, and chairs to shield Alfonso. In that very moment, Fr. Anthony wore his purple stole around his neck, opened his copy of the Ritual, laid his free hand on Alfonso’s head, and prayed in a whisper that crept through the noise of the house.
The prayer felt familiar, as though Alfonso had read it in his studies of the Roman Ritual; and yet new, as though it were the breastplate of the ancient Jewish tribes, refashioned with new stones, shining with new gold. He heard a prayer for the angels and saints to guard the servant of God, whose wounds had been great, who had done his best to defend God’s creation, who had worked with all his gifts to be the conduit through which all mercies flowed.
The language washed through Alfonso, stilled him, made him hear everything, and yet mark nothing. When he opened his eyes, he chanced upon Landon looking at him, with affection not unlike that of Alfonso’s brothers; when he closed his eyes again, he felt his himself calm, felt his heart slow down, finally heard how fast he had been breathing, finally recognized the multiple messes and knots of his thoughts. The prayer had taken no more than a few minutes; but in that short span of time, Alfonso learned to listen with genuine surrender.
What happened next was his glimpse into the true nature of the research project.
Landon was in charge of monitoring the temperature in different rooms of the house and its gardens; his computer showed footage of the hallway, the girl’s bedroom, the roads outside, and numbers and figures that the boy echoed to his brother. Bradley was in charge of recording the footage, ensuring that the recording was truly proceeding as planned, and that files were being backed up into Vatican servers. When there seemed to be a glitch, or where there seemed to be something outside of anyone’s control, it was Landon who reminded Bradley to pray.
Alfonso watched the process, and marked where the Ritual seemed to trigger a response from the girl. When Fr. Anthony raised the host for consecration during the mass, the girl wailed. Nearly every saint in the Litany of the Saints merited a screech, or a scream, or a curse. The walls of the house shook as Fr. Anthony read the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. Then there was the prayer to the Virgin Mary, and the house seemed to simmer into quiet – and then the girl’s arm hyperextended, nearly tore itself off as she tried to grab a priest by his face.
Alfonso heard a sound across the walls; something that felt like a butcher’s knife cutting through bone and flesh. It was the sound of the arm joint popping free of its socket.
“Shit,” Bradley murmured.
“Let’s pray,” Landon laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. From the abruptness of the move, Alfonso guessed that Bradley had a habit of suddenly rising from his chair in the middle of a session, even when he was not supposed to.
Alfonso watched as the doctor returned the girl’s arm to its place, and felt his stomach churn, felt his throat sour, his mouth go dry. He followed Landon’s advice and bowed his head to his hands. In his mind, he could still see the girl’s arms pulled free, as though she had been caught in a web, and had been torn limb from limb to be feasted upon by a giant beast. He could still hear the scrape of bone against bone as the doctor reset her joints; he heard her mother wail out the last few words of the Hail Mary, as though she had been flogged by an unseen whip of fire.
Alfonso called on St. Michael the Archangel, even as his skin grew cold, and his knees trembled.
He did not dare look at the girl as the doctor prepared her to be wheeled off to the nearest hospital. He chose, instead, to watch the Sheffields and their near-clockwork precision in dismantling the network of recording equipment they had so easily assembled that afternoon. He marveled in how the brothers’ broad frames seemed to slip in and out of groups of people unnoticed, which was so remarkable in a country where white folk were stared and gawked at. He saw Landon packing cameras, Bradley taking inventory of computers, and Fr. Anthony consulting with them with a voice that was both low and solicitous, as though they had never been separated, and had been merely called together for a mission into which they had been born.
He felt their brotherhood that evening, as the clock crept toward midnight, and as he ate caldereta with the rest of what now looked like a team. He didn’t mind being a part of the table at that very moment, with a Fr. Anthony who ate with gusto and jested with spirit, with a Bradley who was still his bright self despite all the work he had done that afternoon, with a Landon who washed pots and pans as though he had not come face to face with evil – even with a now happy William, who seemed to be taking everything in with a smile that was warmer, a soul that seemed lighter than when he had first entered the HQ.
It truly was a team – but Alfonso still felt himself to be PJ, the young, the guileless, the brother teased and nicknamed. The Sheffields had their own brand of intensity, Fr. Anthony was devoted to the ministry, and William was a listener who knew how to draw out people’s stories.
His brain had made the connection and had uttered the single word in both surprise and delight; Alfonso was not aware, however, that he had actually said the word out loud. Thankfully, only Fr. Anthony was there to hear him, and had simply smiled in response.
“I see that you’re better – and in more ways than one,” the elder Jesuit said, from across the dinner table. The rest of the team had gone to bed, and Bradley had only just left, following a quick blessing from the exorcist. Alfonso had watched everything with half his attention in his imagination, but he did mark that Bradley was so quiet, as though the boy had surrendered all the puns and jests he knew in favor of a reward as peaceful as a prayer past midnight.
Alfonso returned his mentor’s smile, and took refuge in the silence that fell across the house. It was unusual not hearing the brothers snapping at each other while racing to finish their transcripts, but it was also comforting to see a familiar, fatherly face at a time when the night seemed long and overstretched, like tar and oil had crept across the sky and blotted out the stars.
His spiritual director’s voice was soothing as well. Fr. Anthony spoke of his meeting with William, and how there might be a case amongst the students at the university; how the Holy Father wanted updates on the research project, but was so burdened by bureaucratic paperwork at the Vatican that it was near impossible to sleep without feeling that he was signing something unconsciously; how there were cases aplenty and near unending, but how everyone in the country seemed to see exorcism as a community affair.
Alfonso had to smile at his mentor’s words.
“I wish I had not come so late – but in a way, I am glad that I did,” Fr. Anthony went on, “When we spoke on the phone today, I heard a very different Alfonso. You sounded focused, as though you knew what you had to do, and you were willing to do it even if you were afraid, even if you were shaken to your very core.”
“Thank you, Father, for training me,” Alfonso replied.
Fr. Anthony shook his head, “I didn’t give you the strength or the ability to keep your head straight through a crisis, or the good heart and good sense to pray first,” the old priest raised his glass of water in Alfonso’s direction, “Strictly speaking, I should not say this, but I am very proud of you.”
A morning of running, a breakfast filled with doubts and questions, hours spent managing an exorcism, an evening spent watching a session from the sidelines – Alfonso had suddenly been cast out of the library that he had built around himself, and thrust deep into enemy territory. He should have been the unready priest, the boy without allies, the private who would be cannon fodder while the higher ranked generals watched. And he was still the child with misgivings, who was not sure of his place, who was really, truly afraid that his blank printouts and futile algorithms were all signs that he was needed in a much fiercer battle farther afield, closer to the frontlines.
Even with all his doubts, he had still been protected.
Alfonso did not realize that he was crying, until Fr. Anthony rushed forward and embraced the boy to his chest. They stood silent, for what felt like hours, the mentor and the apprentice, the elder and the novice. There were no words exchanged, no encouragement or advice handed down, no sobbing entreaties sent up; only a spiritual director telling a young priest that he had done well, had learned his lessons, and would soon learn more, whether he wanted to or not.
The tears were neither unhappy nor despairing, Alfonso realized, a few weeks later. They were the tears of someone who had run for hours, and had run in the right direction, had run afraid, had run until his legs had given out; but he had run with all the breath in his body, his heart full, his soul unscathed.
He realized that there were tears that needed no explanation, as he rode the Jesuit HQ van to Manila. He sat up front, face to face with the traffic of the highways that whipped their black-gray paths through subdivisions, hospitals, amusement parks, rice fields. Behind him, taking up the space of the rest of the van, was the first batch of boxes that contained the hard copies of all the exorcisms that had resulted in deliverance, and that had taken place in Lipa since the apparitions had begun. Behind his van were six others, each of them full of boxes, each of them driven by a Jesuit priest within range of a radio in the van up front.
They were praying the Rosary, always watching out for each van, always listening for the responses from each brother. They were in one long convoy to the university, to deposit the hard copies in the archives. There were still boxes left in Lipa, cases unresolved, transcripts to be crosschecked; Alfonso would still be going back to work on the cases, to assemble the mind maps, to rewrite his algorithms, to actually write a paper around findings, if and when they came. There was no escape from Lipa just yet.
There was some progress, however, on the project front. At Alfonso’s feet was a box, holding approximately twenty folders that contained ongoing cases that had proceeded without a psychiatrist. William had not yet been called back to see the young girl once again, but he did ask the Lipa HQ over the phone how he could help. Landon located folders and packed them into a box in mere minutes.
It had been around six weeks since Alfonso had last seen William. They had kept in touch largely through phone conferences with Bradley and Landon, where the exchanges were mostly about food and what William had to try, what Landon had cooked, the latest news from the city, and, on occasion, musings on how the current Philippine president seemed to cast a dark glow across the country. The man had been in power for a little over a year, and he had stayed true to a campaign promise: kill drug addicts and purge the country of the menace of narcotics. The killing spree was worrisome; what was more alarming was how many seemed to follow him so readily, with cheers and applause.
Every conversation with William began with a recap of what he had seen on the news, plus a request for Alfonso to translate what he was watching. There would be touches of reassurance from the brothers, who were increasingly fighting to keep the fear out of their voices. Alfonso hoped William wasn’t too skilled a psychiatrist to read into their words. He knew, however, that William needed a human to speak with, and it fell to him to make a visit, perhaps continue counseling, and simply be a brother to a man who had willingly lost himself in a foreign land.
A man who was perhaps finding himself in his wandering; but a man who would be spending Christmas alone, in a country that seemed to scream holidays from September to February. No matter how staid William was, Alfonso knew, the poor psychiatrist was still healing from a broken heart, and – well, so was Agnes, but she had her family – and – well, there truly was something to be said about people who told stories, listened to them, drew them out from others –
And a partridge in a pear tree, Alfonso giggled to himself, as he heard Christmas carols playing on the street, and glimpsed the lights of the city twinkling and sparkling like a thousand dancing stars.
The young Jesuit ate dinner at the Residences when he arrived in Manila for his furlough, but left right after with a six pack of beer and the box of folders. When William opened the door to his condo unit, Alfonso expected to see him drained, thinner, worn out; instead, he found William smiling, bright, lighter in all ways than the boy he had exchanged high fives with on a Sunday mere weeks before.
“I bring you gifts from the Jesuit HQ,” Alfonso handed over the box of folders, then raised the six-pack, “And I present you our national pride: the beer named after the highest general of the Heavenly Hosts.”
William laughed as he waved the boy in, “Where I’m from, we call that Holy Water,” he brought the box to the counter, and proceeded to open it, “Welcome to my HQ, PJ the SJ. Make yourself comfortable. I just got back from Mass, so I haven’t cleaned up dinner yet.”
Alfonso tried not to smile, or even jump in happiness. He had sensed, weeks ago, that William had not been to church in years. To hear the psychiatrist mention Mass so easily, so readily, after he had spoken so openly about his doubts in the church – Alfonso tried not to credit himself, and hid his grin by putting the beer in William’s fridge.
“Do you want any help?” he asked.
William threw him a quick smile, “Not at all – I’ll take care of it. I need all the exercise I can get,” he nodded to the sink behind Alfonso, where a pile of dishes lay unwashed, “That’s what you get after eating two servings of beef and vegetable soup. I had to run to Mass, so I’m probably going to run after I chug the beer, thanks to you.”
Alfonso made for the sink, but William shooed him away and pointed to his balcony, where two chairs and a table had already been arranged. The Jesuit took the chance to look at the unit, if only to keep himself from scurrying around in glee, or giving William a high five.
The university had been generous. The living room looked out onto a view of the campus, with its sprawling hills swarming with the green of narra and acacia, and its buildings shining with glass that reflected the traffic of the highway below. There was no mess anywhere: there was only a growing pile of folders on the counter as William unpacked the box, as well as a bookshelf as high as William was tall, filled with volumes and volumes of books.
“Got it!” William exclaimed, holding up a smaller box that had apparently been sealed so well, nothing had spilled or given its presence away, “Landon messaged that he sent food over, and he said it wouldn’t spoil, so thanks for the delivery!”
“No wonder it was so heavy!” Alfonso shook his head, laughing as he remembered how Landon looked so happy to hand the box to Alfonso, all taped and labeled with William’s name, with the reminder that the box shouldn’t be thrown or tossed because there were files and delicate memory cards, “What is it?”
“Landon said it was pork menudo,” William put the box in the fridge, “He said I should have it with tons of rice.”
“I think that’s the Sheffields’ way of telling you to start jogging to Lipa,” Alfonso said, this time looking at William’s bookshelf and reading the titles, “Sorry we haven’t called you back yet, by the way.”
“That’s all right,” William answered, from the sink, where he proceeded to wash plates and cutlery, “I haven’t even found a way to locate Anna’s missing sister. I’ve been finishing up a lot of work. I didn’t realize there were so many research institutes on campus.”
Alfonso tried not to grin. He had never imagined William to be the wandering kind. At their last meeting, the psychiatrist had seemed so enveloped in his world, wallowing in his pit of misery, that even inquiring about something other than himself seemed to be both undue effort and unimaginable burden. Alfonso wondered if the world was about to end, what with Landon pulling off surprises and William suddenly changing his ways.
“I got roped into some projects,” William continued, with an air that seemed to bounce on the walls, laugh into the ether, “So now I’m a researcher giving talks. Never figured I’d do it. The files you sent will be my light reading.”
“I’d say they’re lighter than these books,” Alfonso mused, as he recognized some of the titles on the shelf.
“You’re probably right,” William was still buoyant, almost joyful, as he took two cans of beer, opened one, and handed the other to Alfonso, “I went on a shopping spree last week, so I’ll be on a reading spree for the next few years, too. Got lots of those on sale.”
“Nice – and you have the complete Bulatao series!”
William drank from the can, smiled, and drank more, “I read him when I was in undergrad – didn’t really remember him as a Jesuit, but I thought I’d take him up again. Have you read his work?”
“Only bits and pieces,” Alfonso grinned. It was rather embarrassing to admit that he had read next to nothing of the work of one of the most prominent Filipino Jesuit scholars.
“Well, if you’re doing theology, then you’ll like Split-Level Christianity,” William started walking to the balcony, “I once thought it was cognitive dissonance: think one thing, do another. I didn’t realize that it ran deeper than that, like there’s an inner clash between Christianity and a culture that’s always been there, all around you, influencing everything you do. I do see it playing out here; but I’ve also seen it play out where I’m from.”
Alfonso liked the new William: he was scholarly, but not the sort of scientist with whom someone might be walking on eggshells constantly because of the fear of some wrongly placed word; and he was lighter, as though he had finally dropped the millstone that he had long been carrying around his neck, that had long bent his back to the ground, and his face to the dust.
“I think I’ve read parts of that; if not in the book, then maybe somewhere in my theology readings,” Alfonso spoke up, taking his own seat in the balcony and drinking his share of the beer, “I used to see Fr. Bulatao around the Residences. I wasn’t there when he died, but I heard that hundreds of students went to his funeral, and thousands more wrote tributes on Facebook.”
William smiled as he sat down, leaned back, and drank what looked like the entire can of beer, “I can imagine he’d have thousands of students all seeing him off,” he grew solemn, slowly, “I read his exorcism studies. Really interesting. I’ve always read about demonic possession, so to read about elves and fairies possessing people is just weird.”
Alfonso had to laugh. When spoken in his native language, the idea of possession was almost natural, a tale told to children who dared play in gardens without watching where they were going, a warning given to naughty boys and girls who wandered off when told to stay on one path, a scolding for the little ones who were simply disobedient. There truly was a treasure trove of threats from which parents could draw, as Fr. Anthony so wisely put it.
When spoken in English, the thought of possession by elementals sounded like a rather drug-laced version of a second-rate fantasy novel.
And again, Alfonso could not help laughing.
William looked at him with narrowed eyes, but went on, “He proposed this way of exorcising people,” he gestured with the beer can, gaze cast far away into the darkness of the campus, “You’d have to work within the person’s belief system, speak their language, even address the entity. By making them believe that the entity exists, you give them control over the entity; and if they can control the entity, then they can push it out, like they’re just getting rid of furniture they don’t like.”
Alfonso did not know why it was funny (he blamed the beer), and he no longer hid his chuckles.
“Why are you laughing?” William asked, both aghast and holding back a laugh himself, “This is serious stuff!”
“I know,” something about William’s tone sobered Alfonso, “But a lot of people grew up with that being normal. You know, the local duende – the elf – being able to possess you, or the diwata – that’s the fairy – trying to lure you away. For some reason, it’s just funny thinking of them as furniture.”
William shook his head, then sprang off his seat, dashed across the room, and called out from his kitchen, “He did say something about that. Want another beer?”
“I’m not done with mine,” Alfonso replied, hiccupping, “You’re going too fast!”
“It’s really good,” William sprinted back, returned to his seat, and opened a new can, all at the same time, “Blessed by the angels and protected from demonic beer species. Thank you – you and Landon will both be held responsible for my weight gain.”
Alfonso said nothing, only tipped his can closer to William’s for a toast.
William obliged, no longer stiff or awkward (more likely tipsy, which made Alfonso laugh), “So yes, he said something about the language,” William drank the beer slowly this time, “Because Christianity is spoken in a foreign tongue, its values are adopted, but only on the surface, the way you’d speak a language that’s foreign to you. Mostly words, no internalized meaning.”
Alfonso felt something awaken in his memories; he knew he had heard something similar before, but his brain seemed fogged by both the thought of useless codes and the happiness of not reading anything exorcism-related in the week ahead.
“On the other hand, you truly adopt a set of beliefs and practices only if they are spoken about – or maybe introduced to you – in your native language,” William finished.
“Like your language shapes your reality,” Alfonso did not realize that he had said the sentence out loud, but there it was, a chain of words that seemed to have been pulled out by the alcohol, “Wait – that sounds familiar.”
“Agnes,” William said, almost immediately, and almost too easily, so that Alfonso nearly choked on his beer, “She lectures about it. It was the lecture that I stumbled into on my first day here.”
Alfonso had to keep his composure; the mention of Agnes’ name, uttered almost too familiarly by William, dampened the effects of the alcohol somewhat, “Yeah,” was all he could manage to say, “I think we talked about something like that a long time ago.”
William and he were quiet for a while, through the sound of honking car horns and wheels speeding through asphalt, above the darkening trees that marked the hills of the campus, underneath a sky whose grey clouds appeared both green and gold from the thousand Christmas lights that lined the avenue below.
“So how have you been?” William asked.
“Adventure-less,” Alfonso answered, “No new cases, so the brothers are just double-checking transcripts and I’m just running useless codes and wasting printer ink.”
“Really? No new cases?”
“None big. Just minor ones. Vomiting nails, coughing out smoke, falling asleep.”
William nodded, sipped his beer, and looked out onto the campus again. It took that silence for Alfonso to truly collect his thoughts, to assemble his questions, to strategize and see if indeed, two people who had the gift of drawing people’s stories out could indeed be – matched. The idea appeared so logical when imagined, but so silly when worded out in his head.
“So,” Alfonso ignored his misgivings, “What do you think of qualitative research?”
William looked at him sharply, with eyes that were fiery at first, but that calmed into a cloudless night sky very soon after, “Aren’t you going to ask where I’m going to spend Christmas?”
“I thought Landon and Bradley said that you could all spend it at the Lipa HQ?”
“Yes – but – wait – of all the things… qualitative research?”
“I’m a numbers guy,” was the Jesuit’s shrug (he hoped he was not grinning).
The psychiatrist looked both uncomfortable and intrigued; the mixture made William look as though he were gathering his musings, sorting through them, inspecting them, only to throw them all out and start with a fresh batch of philosophical statements. He drank down what remained of his second can of beer.
“Ok, because it’s Christmas,” William droned the words out, “Qualitative research…I once thought it was this place where you decided to give up math because you were just too lazy to learn it,” his gaze cast itself far once again, this time into what Alfonso assumed was William’s memories, “But I’ve been reading about it more, these last few years – and really, last few days – and it looks like an interesting place.”
“Not objective,” Alfonso grumbled.
“Well, no stories are,” William retorted, “It’s a place where you listen to people. It’s a place where you listen to their stories. It’s another way of seeing the world.”
“And you believe in that?”
“In a reality that isn’t objective?”
William shrugged, “There’s a lot we don’t know as humans, and there’s a lot we’ll never know.”
That was good enough for the moment. Alfonso nodded, raised his beer can for another toast, and hid his grin behind his sip.
It would be a very Merry Christmas indeed.