The first blushing knives of dawn slashed through the early morning sky as the thoughts congealed into the single word that had defined Alfonso’s entire existence.
He sat straight up in bed, afraid that he had fed his vanity, more fearful that he had attracted evil as moth to flame. He had always done his best not to compare himself to his brothers, whether the biological or adopted, spiritual sort. He had always been lauded as smart, intelligent beyond his years, precocious, insightful; ranked higher than other boys, students, scholars, in a system and under standards that he fought to disregard as he grew older. He had been called caring, a listening ear, an open heart, a shoulder on which to cast cares – and still, he strove not to allow the labels to define him as The Alfonso.
He sprang out of his imaginings, threw himself into his clothes and shoes, and ran out the door.
And he ran.
For the first time in years, he ran once again. Ran through the halls of the Residences while the rest of the brothers were still busy scratching the sleep out of their eyes. Ran through the paths in the Residence gardens while the cooks and cleaners were still listing their tasks for the day. Ran out into the world, through the roads in the jungles, up into the campus, where the sunlight played with the trees and the birds sang the songs that would unhook the rosy sky from the stars that pinned it in place. He ran, feeling the air walk into his nose and dig tunnels into his lungs, feeling a breeze prickle the sweat on his skin, feeling his thoughts primp and preen themselves, but finally judge themselves as having no importance whatsoever.
He ran, as the ideas shrank back and praised themselves no more.
He would continue to run in the next two years, as he left for his Regency, and as he served in a university in the province. He helped out with research projects on teaching science in the barrios, which meant that he could be anywhere on any given day: walking the halls of high schools as he supervised teachers who had barely cast off their graduation robes, sitting with priests as they interviewed teachers who turned up their nose at whiteboard markers and laughed as they sneezed from chalk dust, in one-room schools in the rice fields to watch as Jesuit volunteers tried to teach the principles of thermodynamics in languages Alfonso could barely even understand.
And that was only the first month. In the next few, he sat in meetings with older Jesuit researchers who wanted to check whether the students truly understood what they had been taught. There were endless nights spent creating examinations and translating them, testing them on students, laughing as students looked at them in bewilderment. Alfonso found his mind tying itself into interesting knots.
Research was its own brand of running: his mind had to travel to worlds of words, to places where his physics and mathematics training seemed both insufficient and inappropriate. And at the end of every day, he was so tired, he remembered nothing of his last few days in Manila, and simply collapsed into bed and slept.
When Alfonso was not at meetings, he was in front of a computer, getting training in coding. He was tasked to make sense of the lectures, interviews, and classes through mathematics. The assignment was not accidental. He had been with his research bosses then, discussing a recent interview with a high school biology teacher who insisted on putting students through quizzes before and after every class, despite the fact that his pupils failed every single time and seemed to take no interest in his subject.
“I notice that he kept on saying ‘the human body’,” Alfonso had thought nothing of his comment, only that he had literally counted the teacher’s mentions in a tally in his notebook, “Instead of saying ‘your body’, which would make the lesson more relatable to his students. He never talked about something that the students could come back to and relate to their experience. Maybe that can help?”
One of the researchers had handed Alfonso a copy of the interview transcript then, “Is there any way you can show us, using data?”
And so began Alfonso’s journey into mathematics as a tool to analyze language. It began as tallies, but he felt himself squirm at the use of mere numbers and majority counts. He took to statistics, but the correlations were hard to justify. Finally – and mere hours after he had received the transcript – he discovered word maps. He played with the transcript using codes that dug into combinations of phrases and words, fought not to giggle as he saw the maps he created and the logic that seemed to live in the choices of words and phrases that the teacher made, and felt his world crack open wide as he gazed upon discoveries he had not even thought of tallying.
He felt like an archaeologist unearthing a map that pointed the way to meaning, or an atomic physicist stumbling upon a path to another dimension with details he never dreamed the human eye could behold, or a theologian chancing upon a thread of logic that no one had ever thought to pick up and draw into the tapestry of the human experience. Alfonso fell in love once again with research, with the act of digging and searching and pondering, with the aim of finding and discovering and uncovering.
The team helped the teacher, of course, by first asking him to change how he spoke about the topic.
Talk about “your body” not “the body”. Ask how they feel when they’re hungry, or when they’re sleepy, or when they need to rest; connect these with what they’re studying. Ask them to repeat after you if they can’t remember something.
The quiz scores looked a wee bit better after a month, points wise. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless, was the general chorus of the Jesuits as they shook Alfonso’s hand, and as more transcripts came his way. He spent less time at the back of classrooms or on the sidelines of interviews. He was in front of a computer, coding, learning algorithms and combinations and new statistics, seeing connections where once there were mere letters, formulating truths where once there were mere words.
Whenever the rendering took longer than usual, Alfonso ran. Ran through the school grounds, past cars, alongside groups of students, behind fellow Jesuits. Ran until his lungs felt like they had their own feet, like his breath was ready to dig out his soul. Ran up and down hills, through and across footpaths, under trees and over pebbles. He learned all the corners of the university by heart, from the little byways overgrown with mosquitoes and grass in the swampy lands out back, to the larger, asphalt roads through which trucks delivered rice from the barrios to the provincial capital.
And when he returned to the office, there was a freshly printed word map, all drawn and ready for interpretation. And all was well in the world.
He was nearing the end of his first year, and close enough to another summer. The jungles around the university were calm, though the evenings glittered with a few fireflies, shook with the thrum and drum of crickets. The sky above was velvety, but sparkling with a thousand stars like moonlight scattered by sea foam. There were no howls to interrupt his ponderings, no growls to break the peaceful monotony that was provincial life, no choruses of a thousand suffering souls to tell him that he had returned to that night on the balcony.
All was well indeed. He dwelt happily on the thought as he looked at his latest word map, this time of interviews with the students of the biology teacher whom his team had helped. There was progress on the quiz front, but not so much on the final exam front. Alfonso could not make sense of the map, but even the uncertainty seemed something to revel in rather than scowl at.
He was in the middle of that reveling, when a chat message came to him and blinked his phone alive.
How are you? Are you treating your Regency right? We just got lots of chocolates over here, so I’m sending some over.
It was his college best friend, Lotta, the genius girl who sang and danced and wrote poetry and did research like a scientist blessed by a thousand saints. They had always stayed in touch – it was she whose presence showed Alfonso that his brand of falling in love was universal rather than exclusive. And, like any best friend, she seemed to know just when to send him the right care package. Chocolates sounded good.
Ok, send them over NOW. Thank you so much! Really need them! Doing ok over here, lots of research, lots of questions to answer, lots more questions appearing. How are you?
Lotta’s reply came a few minutes later; Alfonso guessed that she was checking a mountain of student submissions between replies.
I’m doing ok. So much research too, lots of work, lots of teaching. Always fun. The chocolates will take about a week. Is it ok if I let Agnes bring them over? You remember Agnes, right?
Alfonso had to insert several laughing emojis. Zamora? Communication professor whose boyfriend you don’t like?
He could hear Lotta’s remonstrating tone in her short answer. I never said that! I just said she’s too pretty for him!
The young priest rolled his eyes, and promptly added the corresponding emoji. Close enough!
Again, a few minutes elapsed, and Alfonso supposed Lotta was juggling checking work with a chat with Agnes, with perhaps finding ways to send her own version of exasperation online.
Fine! Anyway…your designated big sister, yes, that Agnes. She’ll be on a research trip over there for a few days, but I think she can drop by for maybe an hour, so don’t worry about blocking off time. She says she’ll be disappointed if you leave your research work, so just tell her which office you’re in and she’ll invade. Exact words.
Alfonso laughed. He had met Agnes a few times, at Lotta’s office, whenever big research meetings were called, and heavy, long lunches were involved. Like Lotta, she seemed to have been blessed by a thousand saints; he remembered that she was a writer and dancer, a professor, a scientist. The only place where she hadn’t been blessed was apparently on the romantic front. The Agnes he remembered was exuberant, almost like a blast of both cold and hot air carrying the light of a blazing sun; she was silly and happy, and treated everyone like they had been her friends for centuries. According to Lotta, the boyfriend stood in stark contrast: he seemed sullen, or moody, sometimes vulgar, laid back, even uncaring; but Agnes claimed that there was a connection, and Lotta fully believed it.
Alfonso, on the other hand, had never met Agnes’ boyfriend, but made the assessment early: it would not end well.
He didn’t bring up any of it one afternoon a week later, when Agnes came to campus with the bag of chocolates. She entered his office with her signature explosion of brightness and energy, swept across the rows of computers, sprang forward with arms that enclosed him in a hug, and greeted him with, “How are you doing, little brother?”
“Loving research,” he answered, taking the bag of chocolate she handed to him, and immediately sprinting to his desk to hide it in a drawer, “And how are you doing?”
“Loving research, too. We just wrapped up interviews yesterday,” was her bright response, with a giant smile as she reached into her bag yet again and produced a tin of cookies, “This is for you. Research goes well with sugar.”
“Thank you!” Alfonso added the cookie tin to his drawer stash, “You didn’t have to!”
“Oh yes, I did!” she bounced into an empty chair with wheels, and gave a tiny, “Whee!” as it rolled a few feet across the floor, “I won’t stay long, but I promised Lotta I’d check on you. If you need to work, I promise I’ll be quiet.”
“Stay as long as you like,” Alfonso was halfway between giggling and laughing as Agnes nearly crashed the chair into a bookshelf.
It was refreshing to see someone other than his fellow researchers, truth be told. Alfonso sat on the edge of his desk, watched Agnes, and wondered how a professor with three initials after her name, years of teaching under her belt, and bylines in research papers and stories alike could still behave like a child when seated in anything with wheels. Agnes was older than him, a good head smaller, but there was a brightness about her that very few people could match. She seemed larger than she was, with youthfulness that seemed to glow through her smile, dance on her words.
“Not sure if I can stay too long, though,” she rolled the chair back to where he was.
“I thought you wrapped up research?”
“Yes, but I don’t want my students to do all the transcribing on their own. I’m helping.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“There’s wine involved. I’m not passing up the chance.”
Alfonso had to laugh out loud at that one. Agnes felt like an independent queen, someone with whom a man might fall in love with because she truly was beautiful, and someone whom a man should fall in love with because she seemed to carry a good deal of love that she delighted in giving. He remembered feeling it when he had seen her on campus once, surrounded by students who took turns embracing her; and he felt it when she had hugged him, with all the affection of an elder sister who was only too happy to bring her brother enough sugar to drown his questions in.
They talked for a while, of Manila, the university, Alfonso’s Regency, Agnes’ classes, movies. Agnes was easy to talk to; and admittedly too easy, so that Alfonso found himself talking about his anxieties with piling research obligations, his unease with doing interviews, and his happiness, in general, at being in a new place. There was no talk of exorcism, no discussion about demons; he figured Agnes to be too joyful a girl to pay attention to such strange, dark things. He nevertheless had to catch himself several times, when he nearly referenced Fr. Anthony, Lipa, or the nine exorcists whom he had paid host to. Agnes just seemed to draw out people’s stories.
They were talking about the latest Korean dramas on Netflix, when one of the younger Jesuit researchers walked in. The poor boy blushed as he beheld Agnes, and could only stare with what looked like horror, as though he felt guilty for stumbling on a conversation.
“Ciao!” Agnes welcomed him before Alfonso could say anything, “Mi scusi, non ti conosco, ma voglio parlarti che mi piace la tua camicia.”
“What the heck?” Alfonso could not help saying out loud.
“Grazie, signora!” the young Jesuit’s blush graduated into a smile, and the boy’s shoulders relaxed as he laid a book down, “Sono soltanto venuto per ritornare questo libro. Non voglio di interrompervi.”
“Oh no – subjunctive!” Agnes intoned, eyes wide.
The young Jesuit laughed as he skipped to the pair, and as he took Agnes’ outstretched hand and shook it. They introduced themselves, exchanged a few pleasantries, and then parted ways a few minutes later, with the boy merely waving to Alfonso before scurrying out.
“I hope I didn’t scare him,” Agnes turned back to Alfonso.
“If anything, you scared me,” Alfonso had to fight not to talk about exorcism, “How did you know he speaks Italian?”
“It was on his shirt!” the girl exclaimed, with a glare, as though to both calm and scold him, “Il diavolo fa le pentole, ma non i coperchi.”
“The devil makes the pots, but not the lids. Further translation: the truth will always out. It’s one of the first phrases I learned when I started studying Italian.”
Alfonso smiled. He sat on the edge of another chair, this time closer to his whiteboard. “My Italian isn’t as good, so good luck to you,” Alfonso said, “When did you start studying?”
“Formally: Last year,” Agnes’ eyes had been wandering to the whiteboard the entire time, and she kept her eyes on it now, “But we used to travel there a lot, and I kept picking it up.”
“Yes. I could understand it intuitively. I don’t know why.”
Alfonso nearly let slip that she should talk to Fr. Anthony, “So – does this happen with all languages? Or just Italian?”
“I pick up languages and I sometimes just know how to pronounce weird words with weird spellings, like in Gaelic,” Agnes tended to talk rapidly, and she did so now, as though she were both showing off a skill and afraid of what her companion would think, “But I’m not fluent. Languages are just my thing. Maybe it comes with being a novelist.”
“No, I’m not. Just blessed.”
“Good answer,” Alfonso said a silent prayer for Agnes, and braced himself lest she suddenly grow fangs and pounce on him. When she did no such thing, and when she simply stared at the maps on the whiteboard, he took to praying that things would end well for the sharp, smart girl. He did not know her as well as he did Lotta, but he was as protective of her as he was of all his friends; it pained him to think that things would not end well for the Agnes who loved, and yet did not know how to take care of herself.
“So tell me about your marine animals,” she spoke up, interrupting his thoughts, her eyes still on the whiteboard.
Alfonso had to follow her gaze, “Do you mean those word maps?”
“That one looks like an octopus, and with hair, too.”
“Sometimes I wonder what kind of PhD you got,” Alfonso took down one of the printouts posted on the board, and handed the sheet of paper to Agnes, “Don’t you do this for your research?”
She looked at the sheet, headlong, then askance, then headlong once again, as though she were trying to see the word map beyond what she truly believed was an octopus, “Did you use statistics for this, something along the lines of structural equation modeling?” she asked, this time reading the words.
“Yes and no,” Alfonso replied, “I use an algorithm that looks at word combinations, and sees what tends to be repeated, what tends to be used a lot with which word, how sentences are structured. There might be some regression involved if we have direct questions and answers.”
“But the questions have to be asked in the exact same way, in the exact same order, right?”
“Of course. It’s an interview, after all.”
“Interesting,” Agnes hummed, still tilting her head every which way. There was a tentative air in her tone, however, that told Alfonso that she was about to either lecture him on doing interviews, or correct some misconception that he did not know he had.
Agnes the child had disappeared; Agnes the professor had awakened. She was quiet for some time, with her back straight, eyes glossing across the page. She looked every bit the dancer, every bit the lecturer, and yet every bit a tiger about to spring up, strike, and scratch the map apart. Alfonso feared for his printouts.
“Quick clarification on interviews as a research method,” she began, with a deep, noisy intake of air, “There are many types of interviews, and the one you described is the structured interview. You can, however, ask questions out of order, in different ways to suit the tone of the interview, provided that you target specific concepts and don’t just toss in questions for kicks and giggles. Semi-structured.”
Alfonso felt his brow furrow, “That’s not objective.”
“Allow me to paraphrase your friend Heisenberg,” Agnes finally looked up at him, “The mere observation of a phenomenon changes the phenomenon; in this case, the enforced objectivity of investigation can change how the question is answered, which might make the respondent’s answer unreliable.”
“Hey,” Alfonso’s furrowed brow went deeper, as he glared at the girl.
“I didn’t say you were wrong,” and here, Agnes looked back at the sheet, “Only that you have to be cautious with interpreting data. May I know who this interviewee is?”
“A high school biology student.”
“Tell me more about him.”
“Him?” Alfonso was close to looking for the nearest copy of the Roman Ritual, “How do you know it’s a him?”
“A – hunch? Some sentences sound very ‘young man in school’-ish,” Agnes’ grin was anything but devious, “I can’t explain. But yes, more about young man in school, please.”
Alfonso was still trying to remember where he had a copy of basic exorcism prayers. “He’s around 14, maybe 15, learning about human anatomy. His teacher gives him a quiz before, then after a class. He used to fail the quiz every time because the teacher didn’t relate the lessons to the students’ experience.”
“Basic Ignatian pedagogy,” Agnes raised her hand for a high five, and Alfonso gave it, “Good one, little bro.”
“The teacher did change his technique,” Alfonso continued, “The quiz scores are up, but not by much. So we interviewed the students to check on what they thought about the subject.”
Agnes looked at the sheet again, “What kinds of quizzes does the teacher give?”
Alfonso shrugged, “Multiple choice, the usual.”
Agnes hummed, this time with eyes narrowed, “That’s kind of – a mismatch.”
“You have to admit, it’s the easiest thing to check in a classroom of fifty students,” Alfonso said, then shrugged as Agnes let out a whistle of disbelief, “And it’s built to check that the students read something before they enter the classroom.”
Agnes nodded, in what Alfonso thought was both agreement and preparation for an argument. “Yes, it’s easy to check,” she acceded, “But is it an effective tool to gauge learning? It’s an effective tool to gauge memory; but if you’re talking learning human anatomy as the goal, then would you say that it’s an effective tool?”
Alfonso smiled. Every professor knew the answer. Even if it was at the base of all learning, memorization was the lowest ranked of all skills. And yet it was also the least cumbersome to assess, not so much because the teachers had nothing in their pedagogical armory to do anything else, but because there was just so very little time left to check work in a class that was bursting at the seams with both students and noise.
“So you’re saying it’s a mismatch between learning and assessment?” Alfonso could hear his research superiors speaking through his voice, “But what can we recommend besides a quiz?”
Agnes’ smile sparkled, as though she had been waiting for the question. “May I see the original transcripts?”
“Hey,” Alfonso felt his glare return, “It’s confidential data.”
“Did you put pseudonyms in place of the kid’s real name?”
“Good – then it’s processed data. Transcript please!”
Alfonso threw his hands up as he reached for a box behind him, shuffled through the sheets as noisily as he could, and mimicked Agnes with a repeated, “Transcript please!” until he came to the transcript in question. She read it almost as soon as her fingers touched the paper; she did not say a word as she went through the interview with a series of nods and blinks, looking both like a professor analyzing data and a robot absorbing the text being read.
There was nothing else to do but wait, so Alfonso looked at his word map of the interview, then looked at other word maps, then tried to make sense of the octopus arms and squid tentacles that the networks of words and sentences made. He did not know how deeply embedded he was in reading until he nearly jumped up in fright at Agnes’ voice.
“This student wants school to be a playground of discovery, but the school he is in feels like a library turned into a museum,” she spoke in a single breath, blinked twice, and finished with a smile.
Alfonso raised a finger, about to interject on the use of figures of speech, until he realized that the playground of discovery Agnes had spoken of had to do with how he himself had learned science, and how every foray into a laboratory also meant that he was about to uncover something new about a world he had taken for granted. He paused, took a breath, raised the finger again – and then realized that the worlds of knowledge to which he felt alien also seemed as though they were mere museum pieces. And then he took another breath, and raised a hand this time; and paused, because there was nothing left to say, except, “Not objective.”
“In short: he wants to touch something that he can see, not read something that feels alien to him,” Agnes pointed out a line of text to the young Jesuit, then read it out loud, “’I like science because it explains what I can see, not just in inside the classroom,’ contrasts with this statement on the next page, where he says, ‘I remember the answers, but I don’t remember them after the quiz.”
“That doesn’t sound like a contrast,” Alfonso drawled out, hand still raised, “Maybe he really needs to memorize things better.”
“Or maybe the quiz measures memory but not learning,” Agnes the Combative Professor was slowly emerging in the girl’s tone, “Would you rather have a student who memorizes the book, or someone who knows where that knowledge matters?”
“Well,” Alfonso felt the single word drone out as a crawling syllable, “I would like them to use that knowledge, but how do I test that they remember it?”
“Is science about remembering, or knowing where to use knowledge?”
“I’d like to think it’s both.”
“True, but in this classroom, do you want students to just remember what they read? Or do you want students to see science in the world?”
“Why can’t it be both?”
“Then change the quiz.”
The invisible period at the end of the sentence nailed the silence into the room, and the speakers froze in place. Agnes still held up the transcript as though she were selling it at an auction. Alfonso still held up one hand as though he were giving the final blessing at mass. And yet beneath the quiet was a murmur of ideas, churning around in Alfonso’s head, buzzing beneath the noise of the room’s air conditioning unit, fighting to be the first to fall into the slots that made up the sentences that would create Alfonso’s reply.
“All right, let’s pretend that this boy represents the whole class, and that we can change the quiz,” Alfonso’s raised, open palm became an index finger pointing to the heavens, “We need a quiz where the students can be tested on how much they remember from the textbook, but where they can still touch things and see them in the real world. It’s a human anatomy class, so we can’t cut humans open, but the students still need to see human beings as bodies. They need to see themselves as human beings with bodies.”
Agnes watched him, silent, save with one thumb raised in approval.
“I can imagine putting down printouts of skeletons, or maybe drawings of human organs, and they can label them?” Alfonso began, pitch rising, which seemed to prompt Agnes to take a breath – but which, in turn, prompted Alfonso to open his palm again and stop her, as the ideas fell into place once more, “But that puts us back in a museum set up, and it’s expensive to print out all these quizzes, then store them and check them. Plus, it’s still lots of submissions to check. So what if it was group work?”
Agnes’ hands dropped, and she leaned back in the chair, smile growing, as though Alfonso had given her ideas the chance to blossom as well.
“My first impulse is, again, print outs, and group cooperation,” Alfonso rolled his eyes at the thought, “But the students who tend to read also tend to do better. The students that don’t read just sit back and wait for answers. So – what if – instead of an individual paper quiz, we put people in groups of five?
“So if it’s… I don’t know… memorizing the digestive system? What if … We have cut outs of organs, and the students have to name these cut outs, then tape these cut outs on someone in the group? To show that they know exactly where the organs are? And each person is in charge of an organ?”
“Oy, Alfonso!” Agnes piped up, smile wide, eyes sparkling, “That sounds good! Granted, it sounds like the black market if you don’t have context; but keep talking.”
Alfonso could not help laughing. “So each student has to pick a drawing at random, and they have to name what their drawing is, with no copying from anyone,” he still had not dropped his raised hand, and up the index finger went again, “So they have to read, regardless, because they never know what they’re getting. Then, they have to work as a group and tape the organs where they should go, but no one is allowed to change the labels. So they know which organ goes where, and what each organ is.”
“That still doesn’t take care of how the organs work together,” Agnes imitated his raised index finger.
“We give them arrows,” Alfonso said, “They show which stuff goes where. We can leave that to the teacher, but the students don’t have to sit down for a quiz. It’s not a museum. They’re not looking at things in a book or from afar.”
“It’s a playground,” Agnes whistled, “That’s consistent with the data – and that could work.”
The two raised hands met in a high five. The sound reverberated across the room, bounced across the walls, sounded like a single clap giving birth to an audience of applause. Alfonso grabbed the nearest notebook he could find, and quickly took down all his ideas, feeling the skin of his face widen with his smile, feeling his pen press into the skin of his fingers as he pushed his ideas onto paper.
“So to answer your question,” Agnes the child came through, “I don’t make marine animals for research. I use another kind of analysis.”
“The non-objective kind?” Alfonso sang as he continued taking notes.
“The non-mathematical kind is what you mean,” was the pointed reply, “But it’s systematic, and it’s qualitative. You can connect data points even if they’re mentioned only once, and they become a theme.”
“Kind of like the word map,” Alfonso rejoined, head tilting toward the whiteboard, where more maps were still on display, “Except in your case, anything can be valid.”
“Only if the data backs it up,” Agnes handed him the transcript once again, “Would you say that what I said earlier matches what you’ve read in the rest of the interviews?”
Alfonso did not have to take long to answer. He had already gone through all the transcripts over and over, had seen the words that the students had spoken, had seen the phrases in which they fit, had noted the whole sentences that had defined their experience. He hated to admit it, but yes, Agnes had uncovered something that his word maps had not.
“Yes,” he droned, “The pattern fits.”
“Not a pattern,” she smiled, “A theme. A pattern is something that repeats. A theme is a larger idea, an abstraction from the data that does not require certain things to be repeated.”
“Still not objective!”
“Only if you see reality as patterned and predictable, and discernible by human senses. But what if our reality was dictated to us – or what if we can never see reality, and just think we do? What if the only thing we can rely on are our expressions of it, the words we use to describe it? What if our language shapes our reality?”
Agnes sounded like a professor throwing out questions for students to think about, and then discuss in the next class. Had he been in Manila, Alfonso would have challenged the notion of a reality that existed because it had been called into being; he vaguely recalled a reading in one philosophy class way back when, where such a reality was claimed to be constructed in the moment, pulled into being by the forces of mere language. Such an assertion would mean that there was no material universe, or at least none known and measurable; and those who spoke different languages also saw different realities. For a scientist, such a notion was unthinkable, something that only enemies of science would dare formulate.
The words struck Alfonso, however, in ever so many unexpected ways. The notion of a relative reality also threatened the notion of a universal truth, and gave license for the enemies of truth – and the Father of Lies – to operate. He feared for Agnes, not so much because she seemed evil in the doctrines that she pursued and to which she subscribed, but because she seemed to innocently embrace them, without knowing what traps she had laid for herself.
“Do you really believe that?” Alfonso could no longer hold his question back, “That there isn’t a reality except what we talk about and describe?”
“Correction: there is no reliable measure of reality by the senses alone, so that we can only describe it, thanks to our human frailty and limitation,” Agnes was speaking in one breath again, but smiling through the entire process, “It is only the description that can reliably be measured, and that description differs depending on language.”
Alfonso could not see the difference, but all things philosophy always took a while to incubate, “So…Do you really believe that?”
Agnes shrugged, smile still bright, “I like the idea that we’re weak and frail as humans, that our senses are limited, and that our language can form the boundaries of what we see in the world,” her gaze focused on something far away, in a horizon in her imaginings, “But I also like to think that the world has patterns that we can uncover if we know how, if we’re curious and ask the right questions. We just can’t trust that what we report will always accurately represent the truth.”
They were quiet for a moment, the young priest and the researcher, in a room filled with ideas, in expressions of uncertainty which scientists alone would be comfortable in discussing. Alfonso finished the rest of his notes, Agnes checked her phone and, from the looks of it, was sending a text message to the boyfriend that the girl alone seemed to like. Her smile, however, was different. It looked both comfortable and worried, as though Agnes had been hoping to have the said boyfriend next to her, but also seemed accustomed to the oft-repeated scenario of being far away and – busy? No – it seemed that she was far away, but someone expected to reach out to her was doing absolutely nothing.
Alfonso had half the mind to send a message to Lotta to start taking bets on when the relationship would end.
“Well – that was fun,” Agnes spoke, as she looked up, “I’ll be sure to report to Lotta that you’re alive, well, and interacting with marine creatures.”
Alfonso laughed. Agnes’ brightness was always contaminating, and he truly was sad when the note in her voice said that she would soon leave, “Will I still see you before you go home?”
“Nope – we fly back for Manila tomorrow afternoon,” she stood up, slinging her bag over her shoulder, “I wish I could stay longer, but work calls. And the students call.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to. I call to it, and it answers.”
They shared a laugh, a quick goodbye, and once again, an Agnes-brand embrace that seemed to both impress energy onto Alfonso, while squeezing him free of his frustrations with his research. She promised him that she would send him the “recipe” for analysis, and he promised that he would meet up with her and Lotta when he returned to Manila after the Regency. And she made him promise to eat his vegetables, because the cookies were evil.
Alfonso was not sure how to even mention the word “exorcism” to a girl who seemed to laugh about the devil. He watched her leave with the same blast of both fire and ice that she always brought when she entered. She left the room brighter than before, warmer than before, even as the dusk brought a sharp breeze and growing darkness. She also left with her an energy that made him look at the word maps, then his notes, then the transcripts; and then, finally, his own notes about the code he had used to analyze the interviews.
He sat himself at his desk, switched his computer on, and resolved to recheck his codes. The qualitative technique seemed to be too New Age for his liking, too fraught with human intervention (even if Agnes did say something about using journal articles to guide his analysis, and even if her assessment really and truly was backed by data). Alfonso decided that he would stick with the math, in a world filled with patterns made to be discovered and described.