But that, again, is moving ahead of the story, for one is wont to play with the elements of time when there are angels involved. They are beings unshackled from the constraints of human language and its linearity, unbound by the limits of human intelligence and its tendency to see the world as bits and pieces that must be reduced to be understood. Matteo had lived with angels all his life, had heard their voices in the images he saw in his heart, had cultivated a garden with his guardian, had sat with her and laughed with her and mourned with her when his family disappeared slowly.
Only Fr. Romy remained, the last of the exorcists, and it was Fr. Romy who led him through the tube, through immigration, out into the baggage claim at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The entire time, the exorcist who had left Manila as a man tired and ground to the bones was suddenly awake. Fr. Romy talked about how the airport looked so modern now, how Rome looked so crowded from above, how there were no tubes and only manual, mechanical stairs way back when airplanes were smaller and flights were rare, if not altogether dangerous. At the immigration counter, he proudly announced that he had not seen Rome in 50 years; at the baggage claim, he spoke with every passing security officer, asked about the city, spoke in broken Italian that made up for its lack of vocabulary with a singsong lilt.
Matteo could only watch as Fr. Romy seemed to grow ages younger, as the man looked at every wall, corner, and stair with the wide eyes of a child brought to another world. He would hold a hand to his heart constantly, and speak of a building probably lost in the war, or a street where the bakeries were probably replaced with car shops, or a friend who was probably living the last of his days in a villa miles away. Matteo was also jetlagged, and he could hardly keep himself upright; he had to assist the exorcist, however, for Fr. Romy was threatening to walk around and look at the entire airport, to look at the shops and buy books and explode in his enthusiasm.
“And there’s a surprise,” Fr. Romy said, almost bouncing as they pushed out their luggage.
Matteo was still half deaf from the airplane ride and struggling to get his bearings. He could not comprehend what the word “surprise” meant, not with the blast of languages all around him, not with the growing noise of the world outside.
“Well, you’re the more boring one, between the two of us,” Fr. Romy mused, as they met the crowds of the airport, as they walked into a sea of emotions and welcome – and as the man pointed to the farthest end of the path leading out of the pockets of passengers, to where a group stood with a giant sign.
Matteo did not know how he ran. He did not know how he managed to push two carts with boxes and luggage forward. He did not know how he did not trip or fall over, despite the fact that he could barely see in front of him as his eyes clouded with tears.
All he knew was that he had forgotten about the discomfort of the flight, the smell of cigarettes in the cabin, the bump-bump-bump of the plane in the sky as turbulence tossed it about. All he could remember was that he was enveloped in a variety of arms, kissed on his forehead, clasped onto a chest, pulled into an embrace that felt as though no tragedy had ever come, and no time at all had passed. There was his father, hair thinner, skin wrinkled, with far less grunting and far more laughter. There was his mother, her crown a bundle of salt and pepper, the pads of her fingers rough on his cheeks. And there was his sister, with the same fire in her eyes since he had seen her last, save that she was glowing, smiling, and carrying a child on one hip.
The said child simply looked at Matteo, pointed at him, and spoke a high pitched, “Ciao,” before opening its arms. Matteo had no choice: he laughed, cried, held the baby, laughed even more as his sister spoke with a voice as clear as bells thundering through the noise of the airport.
“Bambino Matteo, meet your uncle Matteo,” she pronounced, eyes locked on her brother, “You should ask him about your guardian angel.”
Matteo was about to say something in reply, but Fr. Romy had finally caught up with him, and the entire family shouted out its greetings. The poor man was embraced as well, and he quite disappeared – though willingly – into a sea of arms and tears. Matteo looked all around him: no one paid them much mind, for there were reunions aplenty, conversations lilting and loud like a million tiny operas, adults waving their arms and children bawling. It was a marketplace of emotions, and Matteo felt his heart swell.
He could not remember what color the floor was, what the terminal looked like, how crowded the hall increasingly became, or what announcements were being made through the garish noontime and strident air. He saw only his family fussing over the boxes and baggage, felt only tear-stained cheeks meeting his with every embrace, heard only the voice at his ear: a little boy, speaking in what sounded like Italian split at the seams of its syllables, trying to catch his attention.
“I really don’t understand you, little Matteo,” the older Matteo had to speak, for the tears would not stop flowing, “But I am so happy to see you.”
“Papa,” the child said, pointing to someone at Matteo’s side.
Matteo looked, and found a man no taller than he, with deep brown hair, grey eyes that sparkled back the light of the hall, and a smile that was weightless and joyful. When he spoke, he seemed to sing in English, with letters strung out at the end, as though the words were jumping into crystal waters and diving into ocean depths.
“I am Giovanni, and I am your brother, now, too,” he held his hand out for the shaking; and then laughed, for little Matteo opened his arms again, and crawled into his father’s grasp, “I have heard all about you, but there have been no big stories because it was so dangerous and hard to call or even exchange letters. But your family has told me so much that I feel I already know you so well. Welcome to Italy.”
The hand that Matteo grasped was warm, strong; and an angel flashed before him, ever so quick, as though it were fighting battles and had but seconds to spare to make itself known. He recognized an archangel, as strong as that which guarded his sister; and yet light, as though she were a mother at night and warrior by day. Matteo hoped that he did not offend his new brother-in-law, for the vision, though brief, made him hold the other’s hand for too long a time (and even while Giovanni was holding the baby Matteo, at that), that he was not quite sure if he was trespassing the bounds of Italian etiquette.
“Please tell me that I have a good angel,” Giovanni whispered, “Your sister keeps saying I’m guarded by little devils with salad forks.”
Matteo could not help laughing; indeed, his entire day felt as though it were a giant mess of laughter and tears.
He could not even remember getting into a van, but he did remember how he was placed between his parents, so that he could feel his father holding his left arm (and weeping into his left shoulder) and his mother holding his right hand (and kissing his cheek constantly). He could not even remember the streets that they passed, the highways that rolled through Italy, the landscape dotted with cypress trees and oaks, but he remembered his sister (seated at the back, where she was playing with the baby) often throwing her arms around his neck and messing up his curls. He could not even remember what the conversations were (he vaguely heard Fr. Romy speaking Italian with Giovanni, who was driving) or what everyone asked him, but he remembered how his mother was quiet, and how his father, in his calm way, said, “I love you,” to him.
Every word had come out in a whisper so soft, almost afraid, as though the man were fearful of his family being forced apart once again.
And Matteo cried the sweet tears of a man finding peace in his heart.
It was to be the first visit of many, over the next few decades, for the Castroverdes had already settled in Italy, and had no desire to leave, let alone retire in the Philippines. Matteo had sensed as much when the conversations in the van turned to the dictator and his family, or to the university that Johanna had left behind, or even to the house that they had once lived in. There seemed to be a shrug hanging in the air, a tentativeness; even Giovanni’s bright, “I heard the beaches are beautiful!” was met with a simple hum of agreement from Matteo’s parents, and complete silence from his sister.
He thought that he would feel hurt, even neglected. To tell the truth, Matteo wanted to feel hurt and neglected, and yet he sensed only acceptance, only an embrace of his family that had grown away from him, and yet had never grown apart. He embraced his mother and father closer to his side, laughed when the baby Matteo played with his curls, said nothing in protest when his mother claimed that “her baby was all grown up and a man of God”, spoke only an “Oh, papa,” when his father said that there was no one left to carry the Castroverde name.
“But it is a blessing anyway,” came pointedly, and from Johanna, “Speaking of Holy Orders – You’ll want to see Fr. Levi. We can stop by the Jesuit retirement home tomorrow if you’re not busy at the Vatican. But you’re having lunch with us today, and every day for the next year, Matt-matt, before you see the Pope for dinner, because I’m not letting the Holy Father spoil our reunion.”
The laughs around Matteo were loud, irreverent, as though his family had always spent afternoons with the Pope, had shared meals and drinks with him, and were free to joke about him. There was an air of familiarity with Italy, of roots being put down, of a tomorrow to be had in the shadows of oaks and pines. He sensed it as they alighted from the van: he found himself in the middle of a wide lawn, where a grotto marked a corner, where bushes of roses surrounded a path that led to the door of a brick house. There, too, was a table under an arbor of white flowers: it was set for lunch, with a basket of warm bread, glasses of wine, bowls of hot, steaming pasta, plates of what looked like baked artichokes and eggplants.
And there, seated with him at the table, was his family, simply transplanted from his home, supposedly ten years older.
There was his father, making the bambino Matteo giggle with his grunts. There was his mother, setting out plates, serving Fr. Romy, who had already been led to a seat by Giovanni. There was his sister, as fiery and as silly, and yet looking up at her husband with eyes soft and content. There was – Yaya, walking out of the house, carrying a giant bowl of soup, just the way she always had when she was working with Fr. Genio.
She nearly dropped the tureen, if not for the quick hands of both Giovanni and Johanna. She rushed forward, screeched, screamed, threw her arms around Matteo, and simply shouted, “You’re a priest! You’re Matteo!” in all the languages she knew.
It was perhaps the happiest, most bone-crushing embrace Matteo had ever received. He held his nanny to his chest, felt her age creak slightly in her joints, and yet sensed all her old warmth. She was, once again, the woman who led him through their subdivision, who warned all her relatives to stop worshipping false gods, who always made Matteo finish his food for he would need to be strong to face devils.
The questions flew, and the answers that came heralded the many tears that were about to flow that afternoon. Matteo was ready to be as brief as possible with his answer to the question, “What happened to you?”
“I know the whole story,” Giovanni put in, gentle, “You’re in good company, brother Matteo. Please tell us everything.”
Matteo obeyed, and spoke – though still as concisely as he could – of the battle he had seen, of how he had heard everything in the house and gardens, of how he fell into deep sleep with no awareness of space or time. His sadness did not last long, for the stories were filled in mere minutes with Fr. Romy’s accounts of how Matteo ate, followed by his mother’s impersonation of how Matteo sat up in bed at Fr. Genio’s orders and chewed with his eyes closed, followed by his father’s proud reminder that the Holy Father had visited his son and was very fond of the boy. The stories were peppered with tears, but doused heavily with laughter, for Giovanni had picked up Filipino and could follow all the conversations, and he often tried speaking the language but ended up singing what seemed to be a consonant-rich version of it.
Johanna kissed him on the cheek as his reward once, and Matteo could not help exchanging a smile with her, then raising his wineglass in silent salute.
The storytelling recommenced, over salad and warm bread, as the family talked about the exorcists. They had heard about the Jesuits who had come and gone, and through the priests at the Curia. They missed Fr. Genio and his paella. They remembered Fr. Exo and how he always had chocolate bars in his pocket, and how he always teased Matteo. They would never forget Fr. Jun, how wise and gentle he was, and how he was such a good counselor, such a wonderful listener. Did they at least live happily, safely? Did they die peacefully, with no pain, no sorrow?
Strangely, Matteo’s parents did not ask about any of their remaining relatives. He knew that he his parents had both been the youngest of their broods: his father’s brothers had all died in the war, and there were no cousins; his mother’s brothers had left a few children behind, but they had never gone to Manila, let alone written to the family. Matteo had never thought of searching them out, had never even thought of them in all his years as a priest.
He reveled, instead, in the stories that ensued at that table, in Rome, on that afternoon in his very first trip abroad. There was much catching up to do, so much food to eat, so much energy needed to wade through the tales, so many tears shed so that the napkins had to be changed several times over. Yaya could not help musing how Giovanni’s laundrywoman would walk out of the estate if she found out how much washing she needed to do.
And yet, Matteo could not help laughing, even as he kept wiping the tears from his cheeks, even as he struggled to chew his food. The voices around the table were familiar, from his father’s deep baritone to his sister’s high-pitched excitement, from Yaya’s low laugh to his mother’s giggles. Even the baby’s cooing and Giovanni’s questions on some Filipino words created the roof and walls of a new, comforting home.
The storytelling began with Mrs. Castroverde, and at the beginning, when the family had arrived safely in Rome with the Pope ten years before.
The Jesuits had arranged everything so well: they had asked their Italian brothers to find refuge for the family, but to relay nothing to the Philippines, so that there would be no trail of information that would put the Castroverdes, the Jesuits, and even the Pope in danger.
The Castroverdes were lodged in a safehouse right outside the Vatican, close to the Jesuit Curia, where they were visited daily by Swiss Guards in training. Mr. Castroverde had been afraid at first, and then anxious, for he blamed himself for everything; a Jesuit exorcist and counselor was tasked to guide him for the next few years, and to even minister minor deliverances whenever the man’s demons came back to the surface. Mrs. Castroverde poured herself into comforting Johanna; but when the daughter disappeared into her new job, the mother sprang headlong into cooking, a task that she shared with Yaya. The two found themselves volunteering in the Vatican kitchens, where they learned how to cook food from all over the world, and where they could walk about undisturbed and unperturbed, for the kitchen staff was not in the habit of talking, gossiping, or asking each other questions.
Johanna, for her part, devoted herself to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, where she wrote as Ignacia Xaviera, and reported on the latest from the Vatican archives (which was rather appropriate, given her own experience with the Jesuit exorcists). The pay was enough for the family to get by, and she loved the job. She worked in the day, was counseled by priests right before she went home, arrived at the safehouse to a table often overflowing with food (Mrs. Castroverde and Yaya took to experimenting in the home kitchen), and rebuilt her relationship with her father at night.
True to form, Johanna picked up Italian almost immediately, and then earned her master’s degree at the Sapienza a few years after they arrived. There was no grunt from Mr. Castroverde at the table, and, Matteo guessed, there had been no grunts at all at the safehouse as Johanna grew back into her old, scholarly self.
As for Fr. Levi, he was put almost immediately in the Jesuit retirement home, a few blocks down the road, across the River Tiber. But he was well enough, sometimes, to walk to the Curia to say mass; to visit the Castroverdes and share a meal with them; and to even sit with Johanna, listen to her reading her articles out loud, and comment on them with an air far less authoritative than before. His return to Italy had done him good, indeed, but there was something missing in Fr. Levi: his words were not as varied as they had once been, his speech sometimes trailed off into empty syllables, and he could barely read.
Once, Johanna had to read out a word over and over, for he said that he did not know what it meant, and could she please translate it into Italian? The word was “hope”.
And yet Fr. Levi was there, always pausing to dig through his memories, sometimes stressing individual words as though he wished to tear them apart. In his silent strength, he encouraged the rest of the family to move forward.
Soon, Mr. Castroverde was well enough to offer his accounting expertise to a nearby pasticceria. Soon, Mrs. Castroverde was helping with clerical tasks at a nearby farmacia. Soon, even Yaya was lending a hand at the ristorante around the corner, where she met a kindly waiter who later became her husband.
“He’s still at our restaurant,” she grinned at Matteo that lunchtime, dusky skin pink with a blush, “But he wants to see you one day, Matteo! He is so excited to meet you!”
“Everyone knows about you!” Giovanni said, in a mock high whisper, from his post at the other end of the table.
“I think your little demons have main course forks now,” Johanna smiled, so that the baby Matteo laughed, and her husband rolled his eyes, then pretended to pat little demons on the head all around him.
The story continued, after some sips of wine around the table, a change of napkins, and a round of everyone serving themselves more pasta.
The future, then, looked bright. Mr. Castroverde was once again an accountant, Mrs. Castroverde was once again a secretary, Yaya was a cook, and Johanna soon became an editor. Everyone had a job during the day, and they worked well, apart, growing within themselves and feeling their hearts swell with gratitude at their escape. They missed the country, but not enough to want to go home, and not enough to engage in any conversation with fellow Filipinos.
But still, every night, after dinner, in the privacy of their rooms, they would cry.
It was not to be the same over the years. The crying became rarer, the conversations more varied, the prayers longer. They prayed: for Matteo to join them, for Matteo to be safe, for healing, for a country both dangerous and fractured. They hoped, always; there had been no doubt at all that a reunion would indeed happen, but they were nevertheless afraid that their long absence had already weaned Matteo too far away from the family that had raised him.
So, the years passed, the governments changed, and the bloodless revolution brought the world’s eyes to the Philippines. Mr. Castroverde remembered crying when the dictator finally left the country. Mrs. Castroverde and Yaya hugged each other as they watched the news on television. Johanna left the rest of the family, locked herself in her bedroom, sat there in silence. They had all seen the news, but they did not dare speak of it. There was excitement that, perhaps, Matteo would come to them; and yet dread, that perhaps, they would be kicked out into the streets, for they had no need of any security now.
There were, therefore, twin fears: that Matteo had grown to be a stranger, and that their hitherto peaceful lives would be uprooted yet again.
One of the fears was immediately dispelled: the very next day, after the revolution made headlines across the world, the Jesuits held a party at the safehouse, and reassured the family that it would not be cast out. The security situation in the Philippines was still precarious, and there was no telling what Johanna would go through if she were made to return. The family could stay. There was no news about Matteo, only that he was training as a Jesuit, and that he was alive and safe – but the family could still not reach out to each other, not until the communication lines had been fully, completely established. Not until the Pope assented.
Matteo’s case had already reached the Vatican, thanks to Fr. Romy; and it had been documented for resolution on a very strict timeline. The fruits of his gift had to be known first. He had to finish his undergraduate degree (“Philosophy?” Johanna exclaimed, “And Fr. Exo was your adviser? Oh, I envy you!”). Then, he had to finish his first few years of study for his First Vows (“I wish I’d been there,” Mrs. Castroverde sobbed, then kissed Matteo on his cheeks before wiping his brow with her handkerchief, and then pocketing it). Then, he had to finish his two-year Regency (“I wish you had a Regency here,” Mr. Castroverde sighed, then grunted, so that the baby on his lap giggled once again). Finally, he had to complete an initial year of theology so that he could continue his studies in Rome.
“You are very lucky, and you are very smart,” Yaya reached across the table and pinched the boy’s cheek.
“And you had to pick the Jesuits,” Johanna mock glared at him, but quickly threw a grin at Fr. Romy, “Of all the orders, it had to be the hardest one, with the longest training.”
“The training has paid off – he’s a very good Jesuit,” Fr. Romy spoke, returning Johanna’s stare, “Very obedient, very strong, always discerning.”
“We just thought you didn’t want to see us,” Mrs. Castroverde spoke up, voice crackling behind tears, “But the priests said it was the best way to protect you and your gift, and they promised they would make you a good priest. They always had good things to say about you, but you were always so busy, and we couldn’t write to each other – oh we missed you!”
Matteo laid a kiss on his mother’s head, and then stood up, walked to his father’s side, and embraced the man. Mr. Castroverde let out something between a grunt and a sigh. In response, the baby Matteo clasped his arms around his grandfather’s neck, laid his head on the man’s chest, and slept there. Mr. Castroverde said nothing more.
The story continued with a fresh helping of salad across the table. Giovanni carried a decanter around and poured wine into empty glasses, while Yaya went from one seat to the next, inspecting napkins to check if they needed to be changed.
The family had already been so used to the secrecy, that when the revolution happened, they found themselves rather uncomfortable at the attention. People shook their hands on the street when they found out they were Filipino. Fellow Filipinos would corner them and ask what they thought about everything that had occurred, and if they were ready to go home. Children would even ask to take pictures with them, goaded on by parents who did their best to explain what had happened. The same parents would resort to laughing nervously when their children smirked, sneered, or threw tantrums.
At last, the Castroverdes could introduce themselves by their real names, move about without guards, and talk freely about their lives. But they had been so used to the silence, that the noise of freedom was overwhelming.
So, they left the safehouse, and, with the help of some priests, moved into an apartment closer to the Jesuit retirement home. Mr. Castroverde could still serve as the accountant at the pasticceria, and he brought home lots of bread and pastries for breakfast. Mrs. Castroverde could still serve as the secretary at the farmacia, and her boss always gave her free medicines for the household. Yaya could still work at the restaurant and prepare for her wedding, and her would-be husband always helped the family with groceries. Johanna could still go to her job at the Vatican, this time safely using the bus, and she could visit Fr. Levi whenever she wanted.
It was at one such visit that she met Giovanni. He was Fr. Levi’s only living relative, a grand-nephew who had just returned from his studies in the U.S., and who was the only one in the family willing to take over their printing company. Johanna had already met some of Fr. Levi’s relatives. She had hidden herself many times from them if she ever chanced upon them during her visits to Fr. Levi. He, too, despite his infirmity, was afraid that any hint of her identity would put her entire family in danger.
When Giovanni came, however, Johanna had to speak up. He was articulate, interesting, and so very different –
“I would like to interrupt this story,” Johanna declared, for Giovanni had been speaking then, “But I believe you were the one who asked to be introduced to me.”
“Only because I thought you wanted to be introduced to me,” Giovanni retorted, grin wide, wineglass raised, “I could sense that you liked me, so I had to make the first move.”
“Your little demons have a whole cutlery set each,” Johanna returned his grin.
Matteo could not help laughing at the sight. Years ago, he would have withered at the prospect of joking about demons. His sister would certainly have been berated by the exorcists. Today, brother and sister were free, unshackled, except that they were much older: she had wrinkles on the edges of her eyes, he had creaking bones; she was a mother, he was a priest. There were memories, painful ones, ten years before; they never resurfaced at that table, were neither discussed nor alluded to. Matteo only knew that Johanna and Giovanni had been married for three years, had had baby Matteo only a few months prior, and had already had the bambino baptized, so could Matteo baptize their next baby before going home?
“He’ll be here for four years,” Fr. Romy smiled, “And he’ll travel here a lot, so you can see him now, and as often as you all like.”
“Oh, Fr. Romy, I hope the Holy Father and I don’t have to do any kind of tug-of-war with him,” Johanna whined, “I hope Matteo isn’t going to be too busy to see us.”
Fr. Romy shrugged, “We’ll see after the interview later,” and, when the Castroverde parents’ crestfallen faces seemed to sag onto the afternoon, “But from what I know, they’ll ask him questions, he’ll study, he’ll train, and he’ll be here whenever he can. I don’t know much about what other sessions he’ll have with the Vatican, but I’m sure that Matteo will pass all of their tests.”
“They’ll give him exams?” Mrs. Castroverde piped up, voice faint, “They won’t hurt him, will they?”
In many ways, Mrs. Castroverde still seemed like the mother who threw her arms around her little Matteo while he colored whole sheets of paper either black or yellow. Matteo could not help placing his arm around her shoulder, drawing her to his side, and planting another kiss on her head.
“Not at all! They’ll talk to him constantly, and they will guide and counsel him,” Fr. Romy was gentle, and, for some reason, grayer and sadder, “The gift – it’s a wonderful thing, but it can be lonely, so they’ll be there to discuss things with him, to train him. And because he’s a priest – well, they shall put him to work.”
“Work?” it was Mr. Castroverde this time, with a voice as alarmed as that which he had used when the prospect of the Jesuits training Matteo had first been broached, “Do you mean they’ll make him do exorcisms, investigate cases, and look for devils?”
“Oh, no! Oh, goodness, no, and that was what we always avoided back home,” Fr. Romy replied, with all the gentleness that Fr. Jun had always shown Matteo’s father, “But Matteo is already in the ministry as an assistant. He has very little experience with the more heavily entrenched cases – and I thought it best only to make him assist in the lighter ones, so please do not worry, Mr. Castroverde. I think the Vatican will help him get more training here in Rome, but they’ll also help him use his gift for good within the ministry, because he has to be stronger – stronger than he has ever been. They will train him far better than I ever could.”
“We’re not finished with training, Fr. Romy,” Matteo reminded the priest, “We still have cases to work on.”
“Of course,” Fr. Romy’s sadness now looked like a veil of rosy gray on his cheeks, “But also remember: one foot ready for the journey – and I think your journey has only just begun.”
Matteo did not remember the rest of the stories vividly after that. For some reason, the idea of his journey only just beginning had drawn him into silence, so that every leaf of the trees overhead rustled with a different tune, every fork around the table clinked with a specific tone against the porcelain, every sip of his wine made him sense new flavors. There had been days when Matteo felt that he had traveled so far from human existence: on battlefields with angels and demons, through a garden whose shape and form he and his angel had molded over the years, through a revolution in a country that was only beginning to uncover its identity.
And yet there, too, were days when Matteo felt that he knew so little, could grasp only meager breaths of sunlight from the illuminated homilies that the elder Jesuits spoke at mass, could spout only the humblest words when he was called upon to reflect on readings during his theology classes. Such was life amongst the angels, who knew not what time was, only that it was a human weakness to see events as elements assembled in the simplest of sequences.
Matteo allowed the thoughts to form, as the afternoon around him deepened, as the plates and bowls were put away, as the family walked through the house and its gardens. On his left side was his father; on his right was his mother, and they clung to him as though they were afraid that he would spring free from their grasp. He could vaguely see his sister near them, assisting Fr. Romy as they came to stairs or steps; farther forward was Giovanni, with little Matteo in his arms; and farthest forward was Yaya, who was suddenly holding a rag and wiping the corners of cupboards, the nooks and crannies of bookshelves, and the knobs of drawers every time she came across them. There was no sense of duty in her movements; it was as though she did not like dust at all, and she smiled as she removed it, whether it was actual or imaginary.
And he sensed angels, all around him, above him, even hovering over the baby Matteo as though to swaddle him in veils of ivory. He could sense demons – they were present in every house, in varying forms and strengths – but they seemed far away, as though they could not enter and were being held back by a force that they both feared and resented. The angels, on the other hand, permeated so much space, like gardens that overlapped, like gold that flew through walls and warmed the halls, that made even the dark corners seem bright and the blackened wood look new.
He had never felt so weightless before, so happy. If there was any definition of delight, of a taste of heaven, it was this: his mother on one side, clinging to him so that he could feel the leathery thickness of her palms on the skin of his hands; his father on the other, holding him with the same care and frantic love that he felt when he lay in the garden, trapped in a world between worlds. There was his sister, bright; his new brother, arm wrapped around Johanna. There was his nanny, older, hair a sparkling sort of white, but smile as wide as ever.
And there was the baby Matteo, laughing at a wall where there was nothing to see. But Matteo could: it was the child’s guardian angel, a flash of golden light in Matteo’s eyes, perhaps clear in the baby’s gaze. The angel felt like a young man; and when it disappeared, the baby Matteo looked back at his father, rested his face against the man’s neck, and slept.
Matteo breathed. Perhaps the child did not share his gift. All babies could see angels, that much Matteo sensed; he only hoped that his namesake had not inherited the lonely world of angels and demons and celestial wars that Matteo was so privy to.
“I am only so happy that you are with us,” his mother whispered, as they climbed steps to the second floor, “I wish you could live with us here. Please be with us as often as you can.”
“And please don’t look for angels and devils fighting again,” his father spoke even before Matteo could respond to his mother, “I know that you will have to, one day, but please don’t do it all the time.”
Matteo barely remembered the house on his first day there. He knew only that he wanted to both sleep and run outside; drink coffee and down a sedative; eat and simply stare off into space. He felt as though his brain were a mess of cotton and ribbons knotted together, that any word he read would make sense at some other time, that any sentences his brain could craft seemed to rise from the very pits of his mind, through layers of mud and muck before he could even articulate them. There were to be more visits anyway, in the coming years, as he finished his theology studies, as he worked deeper in the ministry, as he traveled the world and kept returning to Rome – the house would be there, and there his family would be, always waiting.
For now, Matteo was experiencing his very first jet lag – a sense of lost time spent in a tube thousands of feet up in the heavens, a sense that so many lives had moved forward while he had simply slept the hours away.
There was one particular area of the house that he remembered, and clearly, as the afternoon drew closer to his meeting with the Pope. It was a wall of photographs, in the little library that Johanna had filled with her books, and where Giovanni worked on the printing company’s accounts. There were photographs there, all framed in wood, in a variety of sizes: the family in what Matteo assumed was the old safehouse, Mr. Castroverde standing by the side of a river, Mrs. Castroverde behind the counter of the farmacia, Yaya making bread in a large kitchen, Johanna with the Pope, Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde in St. Peter’s Square, Mr. Castroverde and Johanna in what looked like an office filled with books, Mrs. Castroverde and her daughter on Johanna’s wedding day, Johanna’s wedding photos, baby Matteo’s baptism photos, Giovanni as a student in the U.S., Giovanni as a little boy, Yaya’s wedding –
“We didn’t have time to get any of our photos from the house, Matt-Matt” Johanna said, from somewhere behind him, voice crackling, “I really wish I took our albums.”
“I did – and I brought them,” Fr. Romy put in, brightly, “They’re in our luggage.”
Mr. Castroverde gasped; Mrs. Castroverde gave what sounded like a joyful whimper.
“You – brought them?” Matteo barely felt his voice escape him, and join the chorus that his parents made.
Fr. Romy seemed to be on the verge of laughing, as though he had put Matteo through a final test that had lasted a decade, and yet Matteo had only realized that he had not passed it. “Of course, I did – I went back to your house to get your clothes years ago, so I took all your albums and kept them,” the priest suddenly appeared young, even with his head free from hair, and the wrinkles deepening on his brow and around his eyes, “I took down all the photographs from the walls and the frames, and I kept all the photos and all the albums I could find. I’m afraid I didn’t save anything else from the house, Mr. Castroverde.”
Matteo’s father shrugged, joyful, as though to dismiss what he felt were imaginary worries, “There was nothing big, just licenses and birth certificates,” the man’s voice was light, though there was a grunt somewhere in the syllables, “We had our passports made here and we might be Italian citizens soon, so I don’t think we left anything important behind.”
“Except this one,” Mrs. Castroverde clung closer to Matteo, squeezed his hand, gave him yet another kiss on the head, “I’m only so glad that we’ll never lose you.”
Matteo could not help the tear that rolled down his cheek, and could only smile at Fr. Romy from the mess of arms that once again enveloped him. He had never thought of saving anything from their old house. Ten years ago, all he asked for were his notebooks and pens, his high school uniform, and some clothes, because there were three months to go until high school ended, and he had nothing to his name. Eight years ago, one of the Jesuit brothers retrieved some of Mr. Castroverde’s clothes, because Matteo was growing fast and he needed new pants and shirts, but had no money to buy them. Six years ago, he visited the house right before his college graduation, and saw how it seemed to shrink, to be no more a fortress with a garden, but a simple place where priests often stopped to spend the night between missions. And but a month before he left for Rome, he stayed there between deliverance sessions, but felt nothing except a need to see his family again, rather than to remember what it was like to roam the streets of the subdivision, or sleep in his old bed, or lie in his father’s arms in their front garden.
He had never thought of getting the photographs, of keeping any mementoes except those memories that were stored in his head. It had become a habit soon enough, that Matteo had not even recognized it. He did not rely on snapshots to call up his memories: they were merely moments in time, captured, so infinitesimal in the grand scheme of millions of years of the universe – mere breaths in the long sentences of the languages of the angels.
That was not to say that he did not add to the wall of photographs. The very next day, when he again visited for lunch, he found that his parents had put up photos of him at his high school graduation, his college graduation, his First Vows, eating chocolate with Fr. Exo, lying asleep in Fr. Jun’s arms, learning how to write with Fr. Levi, sitting on the kitchen counter as Fr. Genio stirred a giant pot, standing in the gardens of the House of the Jesuits with Fr. Romy – and the family photograph taken a few days before Johanna had gone into hiding.
Matteo felt the tale complete itself, there on the wall, where the many faces of his life stared out at him, where his past mingled with other lives parallel to his own. There were to be more photographs in the years to come: of little Matteo who would later go on to love football and play it with strength that exhausted his parents and grandparents; of the little sister who followed who inherited her mother’s love for writing; of the trips that Matteo took with his parents whenever he was assigned somewhere in Europe; and even of Fr. Levi, whom Matteo would meet later that afternoon, and whose remaining years would see him as the one of the few remaining mentors of the Jesuit exorcists.
There, too, would be the photograph that would become Matteo’s favorite. It would show him in the black habit of the Jesuits, with his nanny, his parents, and his sister, seated with the Pope under a tree in the gardens of the Vatican. Every time he looked at the photograph, he could hear his guardian angel giggling.
There, on the wall of images, was Matteo’s life. The colors were fading, and yet the faces were as recognizable as ever. His father and his gruffness. His mother and her silent persistence. Johanna and her fiery glow. Yaya and her happiness, plain and simple. The lanky Fr. Jun. The bright Fr. Genio. The rosy, rotund Fr. Exo. The quiet mentor that was Fr. Levi. The eager man that was Fr. Romy. They would fade slowly from the wall, retire from the land of the living, but never from Matteo’s memory. In his mind, all images were shared in the garden that he built with his guardian angel, and all scenes were as vivid as they had been when he had first witnessed them.
For that, indeed, was Matteo’s gift – and it was something he realized, in full, that afternoon: there was neither past nor future, moment nor long, protracted event, beginning nor end. He could see his life playing out, and he could see the connections across his trials and his successes – he could see the threads across all the lessons he had learned, and pick parts of the tapestry to look at, ruminate on, and show to his guardian angel.
And that is why you always take time to think, his guardian angel whispered to him then.
That was why he did not answer in the sequence sometimes demanded by the human ways of questioning. That was why the speed of thought that had been so easily gifted to his peers had eluded him, for the gift was that of weaving, of seeing the many stories of reality intertwine into insights, of perceiving the many byways of his life as roads through a country rich with lore and legend. He had to see the many spaces that an event occupied, with none of the instantaneous wisdom of the angels, but with his human reason both humble and rich.
It was an insight that embedded itself deep into his soul when he visited Fr. Levi the next day. The old priest looked the same: he was still the scholar, the teacher who discussed philosophy with Johanna, the mentor who gave Matteo book after book after book to read, and yet could not recognize that he had been lending the same volumes for months. But when he spoke, Matteo finally glimpsed the priest who had nearly lost his mind when Johanna disappeared, the priest who had searched frantically for her and had to be sedated. There was the tone of a child in his voice, as though he were always looking for a hand to hold, or he would be lost forever.
Fr. Levi recognized Matteo immediately and burst into tears. He could hardly speak, and all he could do was gesture toward the man who had once been a boy, and who had entered the priest’s room in the black shirt and pants of the Jesuits, with a crisp, white Roman collar to boot.
“You made it happen!” Fr. Levi sprang up with all the energy of a young priest, and ran, first, for Fr. Romy, “You really made it happen!”
The two exorcists embraced, wept, and held each other for a long time. Matteo heard only a few words, and yet felt his heart both break and mend itself at the sight. Of course Fr. Levi had heard about his brothers’ deaths, and of course he had no one to turn to, no one to share his tears with. He had not had the space to talk about his brother exorcists, no space to grieve properly.
Fr. Levi and Fr. Romy prayed together that afternoon, as they sobbed, as they exchanged stories, and as they sat together on the edge of Fr. Levi’s bed.
“I missed you all so much,” Fr. Levi muttered, sentences seemingly hanging off his tongue, as though they were waiting for him to complete his thoughts, “I wanted to write, but no one would let me. And I cried every time the news came, when Exo left, when Jun left, when Genio left – my God, Romy, there are so few of us! So few that are willing!”
“Ay, Levi,” Fr. Romy replied, taking the other’s hand, “I’ve missed you, too! We all missed you. I am so sorry we couldn’t come.”
“I know, I know – the world is unkind, it truly is. But it has changed, and for the better. Now: this one! This little one!” Fr. Levi exclaimed, stood up once again, and threw his arms around Matteo. The boy was now as tall as the priest, and he felt the old man’s head rest against his shoulders, there to pour the tears he had allowed to remain unshed in all the years they had been apart, “This little one is now one of us! We are now brothers!”
Matteo did not know how long he embraced Fr. Levi, only that the man felt so small now, unlike the teacher who had always wrapped him in his arms and carried him when his Yaya was busy in the kitchen, or if his mother was being counseled. The Fr. Levi he knew back then was strong even in his growing frailty, was not the seeming bag of bones and tears that now shook against Matteo’s body.
When Fr. Levi recovered, he patted Matteo on the head, remarked how the curls were “still the same after all this time”, and sat once more next to Fr. Romy. There was so little of the proud scholar who had walked the halls of the House of the Jesuits, who had reached up to the high shelves of the library to take down the heavy books, who had taught Matteo to read with an authority that seemed built into his spine. There was only a man, hair thinned, back bent, cheeks sharper, memory walking on such light feet that it was hardly ever there.
Matteo sat on the nearest chair, opposite the old priest and his spiritual director, and listened to their conversation.
They spoke about Fr. Levi’s life in retirement. Of course he still held masses, but it was less often now, and only when he had a missal open before him, for he could no longer remember so many things, could hardly even remember how to button his own shirts. And he did train exorcists, but only as a counselor, and only when he had the Roman Ritual open in front of him, for there were times when he could hardly remember where he was. The orderly once had to sedate him, a long time ago, he felt; though it was probably last week, but he did remember that Johanna was there, and she was safe, and that was more important than a few needles and some discomfort.
Matteo felt his heart break in a hundred little shards. He accepted yet another embrace from Fr. Levi, and winced this time, for the man was suddenly stronger, and his grasp seemed desperate, as though he were hanging on to the few memories that he could understand.
“There are so few to train because those who want to join us are so eager,” Fr. Levi sighed, “And those who are afraid have to be encouraged, because they think evil is like a monster in the closet, or a witch coming out to eat you. They don’t understand so many things!”
“That’s true back home as well,” Fr. Romy interposed, “There are so few of us – but I’ve already trained some of them, and I do want them to come to Rome. Maybe they’ll come to you!”
A tear rolled down Fr. Levi’s cheek, and Matteo could see it disappear into the furrows and wrinkles, “You flatter me, Romy,” then with a pat on his fellow exorcist’s hand, “I don’t think I have long to go, but I’ll do what I can.”
Fr. Romy’s eyes were glassy as well, “I can’t promise you good trainees, but Matteo can train the priests on his own soon.”
Matteo felt his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets, “No, Fr. Romy! Not me!”
Fr. Romy and Fr. Levi shared a laugh, and it rang through the room, though briefly. Matteo could see the kitchen of the House of the Jesuits once again, with Fr. Romy reading out prayers for Matteo the little boy, Fr. Levi bending over Johanna’s work, Fr. Genio in the kitchen with Yaya, Fr. Jun in the garden with Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde, Fr. Exo next to Matteo eating a chocolate bar and sneaking candies onto the child’s hand.
The vision faded, and there was Fr. Levi’s room again, with its faded rose wallpaper that looked both pink and yellow in the sunset, and his bed that looked so very big as two old exorcists sat hand in hand on the edge of it. He wondered at first why Fr. Levi had so readily taken Fr. Romy’s hand; he realized only later that Fr. Levi seemed to possess a spirit so faint, a soul tethered so weakly to his body, that the old exorcist always sought out a hand to keep him anchored to the earth.
“I do hope you get to teach one day, Matteo,” Fr. Levi intoned, “You have depth in your thinking. You discern where others speed by. And you listen. You listen the way that humble young men listen to a voice in the sky that tells them that their God is calling them.”
Matteo did not know what to say. He did feel something warm blossom in his heart, and something wrap across his body with what felt like soothing fire. He murmured something in assent to Fr. Levi, though he wished he had said it louder, if only to earn the pinch that the old priest gave to his cheek.
“I heard you sent so many notes, Romy,” Fr. Levi turned to his fellow exorcist, this time with a smile so bright, it made him appear younger, as though he were a teacher again, “The young men at the archives were so impressed by your Lipa records, and of course your notes on the exorcisms, and of course your notes on Matteo. They called it excellent record keeping of the highest and best order.”
Fr. Romy nodded, a tiny tear escaping the corner of one eye, “I’m glad to hear that,” he sniffed, paused, then swallowed what Matteo thought was a sob that had to be covered with a distraction, “Did you see Johanna lately, by the way?”
The smile on Fr. Levi’s face nearly turned him into a baby, so bright was it that it washed the room in more rosy light, “She married my nephew, and I was their priest at the wedding! And they have such an adorable little Matteo!” the priest reached over once again and pinched the adult Matteo’s cheek, “Of course, not as adorable as this one was! I am so glad you are here to see your family. You’ll stay, yes? And visit?”
“Of course, Fr. Levi!” Matteo felt himself both blush and shed thin tears, for Fr. Levi’s voice was almost as high pitched as that of a little boy begging not to be forced to take a nap, for he wanted to play with his friends, “I’ll be here for four years for theology classes, and they’ll be interviewing me at the Vatican.”
“Oh! Of course!” Fr. Levi threw up his hands, waved them about, almost like the Italians on the street who gestured everywhere in lieu of actual sentences, “I did hear about this from Anthony. They will talk to you, work with you, cross check notes – I am sure that if I was a decade younger, I could be a part of this committee. But they are good people, so there is nothing at all to fear. I do not know exactly what will happen – do you, Romy?”
Matteo knew Fr. Romy well: the man was quick with his responses, sprightly even if he moved much slower now, a quick wit though he tended to forget some things when he was too busy being excited about them. The Fr. Romy that responded was pensive, as though he had examined every syllable of his friend’s sentence, listened to their cadence, and thought hard on whether to give his reply; and the reply, when it came, was a second too slow for Matteo, that it suddenly froze his heart, made him fearful for what it all meant.
“I do not know, Levi, only that it will involve interviews and consultations,” even the man’s voice was slower, measured, “I don’t think there is anything to be afraid of, Matteo. Maybe you’ll have the occasional scholar trying to cross-examine you on theology, but they aren’t there to hurt you.”
“Unless they’re Dominican,” Fr. Levi half interjected, half giggled, “Oh, I do miss Exodo!”
Fr. Romy, for all his seriousness, was a joy to see laughing, “I miss him, too!” he exclaimed, “Well, Matteo has many gifts from his five brothers who once served as his fathers. I am sure he shall make us proud.”
Again, a shard of cold pierced Matteo’s heart, this time alerting him to anxiety, as though there were an unease that he needed to acknowledge. He kept silent, looked at Fr. Romy’s words in light of all the man had taught him, from the sessions in the library to the meetings in the Jesuit headquarters in Lipa, from the meditations that had given him his garden with his guardian angel to the conversations they had over the Roman Ritual. He took a long while to examine the threads of his thoughts, for he was still listening to the conversation before him, and imprinting the sight of two bright Jesuit priests in his memories.
“Oh, he will! He will make us proud!” Fr. Levi agreed, breath suddenly slower, as though the excitement had drawn out his energy, “We shall be proud of this young man for many years to come. Have you already met any of the priests in your committee?”
“No, Fr. Levi – but I’ve met the Pope again,” Matteo replied.
Again, gesticulations and gestures from the Italian exorcist, “This little one is a celebrity – I can’t even get an appointment with the man, and you’ve met him twice!” Fr. Levi smiled, then breathed deep, as though he had run too fast for his own good, “One of the priests in the committee is your father’s counselor, and he visits me regularly for lessons in exorcism. I can ask him about the process when he comes, if you’ll let me.”
“Only if that’s all right with the committee, Fr. Levi,” Matteo smiled, for Fr. Levi reached over once again, patted his curls, pinched his cheek, then drew a cross on his forehead with one leathery thumb, “I don’t want them to think that I’m spying.”
“Well, we shall just say that I am doing research as his mentor,” Fr. Levi smiled, “To tell you the truth: he reminds me of you. He is much older, but he is insightful, always thinking about what he says, always listening to what people say. And he is such a gentle soul, that you simply want to sit with him when you meet him for the very first time.”
Fr. Levi paused, took a deep breath, pushed it out through his mouth, as though his heart were racing and he had to stop it.
“I am afraid that I get tired out so easily,” he finally spoke, eyes drooping, skin paling, hand grasped even tighter around his brother Jesuit’s, “Let me lie down only a little bit and rest, and I shall have only a quick nap. Do remind me later, Matteo, to tell you about Anthony. He’s a good man, an American, very friendly. You’ll be good friends, I can tell.”
“I hope we will, Fr. Levi,” Matteo had to talk, for the sight of Fr. Levi stooped, seemingly disappointed in his feebleness, made yet another tear roll down his cheek, “But let’s let you rest first? Then we can talk more.”
“And have dinner!” Fr. Levi finally let go of Fr. Romy’s hand, and clapped his palms together lightly, “They have a lovely trattoria here, not very far, but you’d better take me there and back, or I shall be sleeping on the banks of the Tiber if I forget where I am and where my bed is.”
The man’s easy acceptance of his forgetfulness, his slow and creaking rising from the bed, his tottering steps – Matteo remembered the children that Fr. Levi had spoken of in his old stories, when he had once ministered to the young back in the Philippines. They were all so innocent, often silent, so unsure of their walking and their words. But when they were under a trance, when they were taken over, their words became garbled, their meanings wound up, their sentences articulate and yet gibberish. They would walk upright, walk on walls, even, stare out at priests from blank, soulless eyes. No movie could ever capture the depths of their gazes, Fr. Levi once said, no camera could ever show how there seemed to be a tunnel into hell in their dark pupils, as though the souls that begged for mercy and gnashed their teeth would crawl out and kill all of humanity in minutes.
Above and beyond the memories, however, was grace: Fr. Levi the scholar was disappearing, but there was still joy, shimmering across his countenance, riding on his low laugh. He allowed Fr. Romy to lead him to the bed and to wrap his blanket around him, even half-giggled at a quick joke they shared, and then declared, “I’m napping, but don’t you leave this room! Make yourselves comfortable!”
Fr. Levi finally dozed off in mere seconds, the way that the old Jesuits back home sometimes did, when the afternoons came and when they had tired themselves out with the one class they taught, or the few steps they climbed. And Fr. Romy sat by the man’s bedside, opened a book that he had carried in his bag, and began reading, with the quiet manner of a Jesuit so used to being with his brothers. Fr. Romy said nothing, looked only at his book, turned the pages oh-so-gently, as though fearing to wake Fr. Levi. Matteo, however, knew that the younger exorcist was not unperturbed: he had marked how Fr. Romy seemed troubled when Fr. Levi mentioned being tired, after but a few minutes of talking; and he had seen how Fr. Romy held back more tears when he tucked the old priest in, as though he were a son watching his grandfather wither away.
Matteo had not packed anything, so he chose to look around him instead. He had finally escaped his jetlag, which meant that he could finally enjoy his surroundings without feeling as though his appetite and emotions were pulling him in opposite directions. He first chose to look out the window, and there saw the sun sparkle pink amongst the cypresses, bounce against the coffee brown walls of the buildings opposite, glisten against the glass of the many windowpanes of the many open windows from which musical voices flowed. Far away, on the horizon, was the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica; on that afternoon, it was a deep blood red, imposing but not threatening, wonderful to behold beyond the postcards and photographs that Matteo had seen in his youth.
Indeed, he had dreamed of that moment for years. He had always heard of Rome, and had wished to travel there; as he grew older, he knew that his family was safe somewhere in Rome, and he wished that he would one day see them; as a priest in training, he knew that the best classes in theology were in Rome and the Vatican City itself, and he wished to both be with his family while finishing his studies; and finally, when the invitation came, he dreamed of perhaps being ordained in Rome. And perhaps by the Pope?
Matteo had to stifle a giggle; he was prone to bouts of giggles now, not so much because of his excitement at recounting his dreams, but at his joy at how his sufferings had fit so cleanly into the tapestry of any given moment. Our God is a God of surprises, he had often heard his theology teachers say; and whenever they had spoken the words, something stirred within Matteo, which he supposed was agreement, resonance, a deep understanding of their meaning.
Our God is a God of surprises, and we must laugh, for our joy is His joy.
He could sense his guardian angel show him the words, and then embrace him. She reminded him to pray his thanksgiving, to once again remember the graces that had brought him there without recalling anything that would put him in a position of triumph, to love how he could be on the sidelines and enjoy the heart of his story.
Matteo learned to love being away from the center, to sit in the shade of his garden, to watch his memories from afar. On that afternoon, there mingled in his heart both happiness at seeing Fr. Levi, and unease, for there was something in Fr. Romy’s words that made him sense that there would be many travels – and yet Matteo would have to learn how to take them alone.
Matteo felt another stab in his chest, just as the bells of the city all tolled the hour of six. He had always heard the bells tolling, had always felt their music reverberate across the streets of Rome, had always heard the tiny echoes of chimes dancing through the panes of his windows at the Jesuit Curia. This afternoon, however, he felt the bells in their fullest force, for Fr. Levi’s windows were open, and there were ever so many domes and bell towers below. He felt the ringing sound in his heart: there were the high notes wafting through the air and mingling with the sunlight, there were the singing notes that walked through the streets and spoke in conversations with the children, and there were the deep bass notes that held his soul, told him that there were spirits everywhere, that there was hope in everything.
Matteo stood up from the chair, realizing that he had not been that high enough, not at sunset, not when he could see Rome with the last of the golden sun and the beginning of velvet night. He realized, as well, that it had been ten years since he had first looked out upon a city, and witnessed an invisible war. Ten years since he had watched his street, beheld the afternoon awash in the grey skins of demons baring their fangs and holding their black forks high, saw the coming night brighten with a blast of angelic armies in fullest battle array, in colors that mimicked no known universe, in gems to which his poor words could give no name. Ten years since he had allowed himself to look out upon a war that had been fought in a city whose streets had run with the protests of the young and the blood of the innocent, in a country whose wounds now ran so deep, their furrows glistened with resentment and fury.
Today, in the blush of the Eternal City, there were no demons lurking in corners. If there were any, Matteo did not sense them. There were no warrior spirits sending forth both hordes of golden chariots and swords that slapped the air like a thousand bolts like lightning. If there were any, Matteo did not see them.
He beheld only what looked like a shimmering mist, a glistening veil upon the world. He breathed, counted, closed his eyes to listen to the air flow into his lungs, then leave; opened his ears to admit the merest steps on a corner on the pavement below, along with the rush of traffic in the highways farther out; opened his senses, to their fullest, in counts that made his body softer, his breathing slower, as though he were climbing a mountain with nothing but the bare skin of his nails to aid his ascent.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the mist coalesce into forms golden, glimmering, glassy. They were on the roofs of houses, the turrets of towers, the middle of streets. They were all silent, all kneeling, all with heads bowed, all with wings unfurled, all facing the Dome that marked the Basilica at the heart of Vatican City.
As the bells tolled, so could he feel their prayers spread out into Rome, fly like doves into the rafters of the houses, ring with caressing syllables in the recesses of his heart.
Matteo could sense to whom the veneration was directed, and he, too, knelt, crossed himself, and prayed the Angelus under his breath. He could feel his guardian angel echoing his words, for she was so silent in their garden, so deep within her prayer, that Matteo could almost hear her intoning the syllables of angelic speech. Unlike his younger self, however, he did not attempt to peer into the world, or try to understand that which human souls were too frail to comprehend. He had long learned that to give up, to surrender, to debase himself, was strength, for it was to control the urges that made him weak – the urges that would make him weaker if he allowed them to take over.
In those few minutes of the Angelus, Matteo felt his fear grow, as he somehow read into Fr. Romy’s words, into the man’s actions in the last few months. The exorcist had sent ever so many notebooks and notes ahead of him, to the Vatican; and yet he had kept many of the exorcism files of Lipa at the Jesuit headquarters in the province, in boxes of folders stacked with papers sandwiched between cassette tapes. He had brought files with him – most of them handwritten – that detailed Matteo’s life and the work that they did; but he had also put in requests for computers for the headquarters, even as he did not use computers himself.
They were something for the young, for those who were yet to come, Matteo remembered. Fr. Romy had said so one afternoon, as Matteo sorted tapes into the correct folders, as he mused (moaned, more so) about hoping for technology that was less bulky, more permanent.
“That shall be something for you and the rest of the Jesuit children,” Fr. Romy had said then, as he restocked the bottles of Holy Water in the cupboard marked “For Priests”, “The technology shall be something for the young. The old ones are in charge of wisdom.”
Matteo remembered shrugging then, as he dreamed of the day when someone would transcribe the hours of exorcism – and then wondering, aloud, why anyone would want to transcribe an exorcism, let alone record it.
“Recording it protects us and the victims – something that Fr. Jun advocated,” Fr. Romy had told him, “Transcribing it will help us have a copy if we choose not to listen to it, for even the voice of demons is enough to wither your soul. And we shall have records, for records are always good for you to look back on and to learn from. Do listen to your spiritual director, for he does have some wisdom in him!”
Matteo remembered laughing, and then sighing, for the cassette tapes were heavy, the folders were unwieldy, the boxes were dusty, the papers were cutting his skin – all trivial now, as he realized that he had been organizing Fr. Romy’s legacy.
He stood up, and looked at Fr. Romy, not sure what he intended to do. He wanted to ask the priest what was to happen to Lipa, for there were no permanently assigned clerics in the headquarters, and what Marian apparition case could prosper if the investigators were always changed? He wanted to ask the exorcist what he had meant about learning from the recordings – and why articulate the reasoning using the more personal “you” rather than “us”. He wanted to ask his spiritual director what was next – for indeed, after the theology classes in Rome, after Matteo’s ordination, after his case was fully investigated and documented – what indeed, was left to do?
Matteo could not speak, for the questions had crowded so quickly into his head, with all the loud, cobblestone-cutting footsteps that made the thoughts sound like the pedestrians on the street below. And the many possible answers to his questions! Goodness! They felt like a thousand voices, singing and talking, melodic and rasping, high with excitement and low with solemnity.
He breathed through the melee. At the end, all he knew was that he was looking at two Jesuit exorcists, in the most peaceful of positions, in the most comfortable of scenes.
There was Fr. Levi, on the bed, asleep, glowing in the light of the sunset. Years later, Matteo would remember that moment, as he led the prayers over Fr. Levi’s trembling, dying body, now eaten from within by a disease to which a name could be given, but no cure could be made. And yet even as there was pain in the exorcist’s every limb, there too, was love in his heart, and grace in his low prayers, and faith in the eyes he cast to heaven. Fr. Levi was close to a century old then, and yet he appeared every measure of the man who lay in the bed at dusk, that afternoon, in Rome: content, at peace.
Johanna was there, too, with the priests who ministered at Fr. Levi’s deathbed. She knelt, sobbed, never left her old mentor’s side even when he seemed as though he were calling people who had long gone, or even when his shaking was so violent, one could hear his joints cracking and clapping even across the walls. When Fr. Levi was lucid, he would always turn to Johanna, smile, nod, as though to reward her for ever so many jobs well done. The last gesture he gave was a blessing: he lifted his hand, smiled through the pain, and made the Sign of the Cross in the air.
She fell to her knees by the side of the bed and buried her head in her hands. Fr. Levi, for his part, simply laughed, with the low laugh of someone who sees a child weeping at the departure of a friend for a great city, where all dreams come true, where there is no more suffering, where there is no more pain.
Johanna, the bright girl that she was, understood. She spent the rest of the time reading aloud from any litany that the priests handed to her. She hardly slept, ate little and drank little, and simply seemed to be overflowing with joy as she paved the way forward for her old mentor.
The day Fr. Levi died, his entire room seemed to be enveloped in the same love, and grace, and faith, and peace that he had held so easily on his countenance. When he breathed his last, so did the entire room seem to explode in golden light. For a moment, those who were watching were given a glimpse of what Matteo saw every day: a dazzling angel, of the rank of Thrones, enveloping the priest with a mantle of the brightest gold. The rest of the room glimpsed it as sunlight breaking through the clouds of that rainy day; Matteo saw it as a figure not unlike his guardian angel, who bowed to his guardian as she left the room with her ward’s soul.
That scene was not to be played for a decade yet, and it was not in Matteo’s mind that afternoon, as he watched his two mentors, and as the city of Rome crept slowly into evening.
The young priest beheld Fr. Romy: the man was still reading, still unaware of the world, still deep in his book as though Fr. Levi would interrogate him when the elder awakened. Fr. Romy had aged in the last decade, lost his hair, grown paler; and yet that afternoon, in the light of the sunset that bounced roses onto his cheeks, he appeared young once again. He was the priest who tutored the child Matteo in the House of the Jesuits, the exorcist who sorted through stacks of handwritten files to teach Matteo about the Roman Ritual, the spiritual director who held the sobbing Matteo after the boy had pronounced his First Vows.
Fr. Romy never returned to the Philippines. He remained in Rome, as a mentor who aided investigations, then a retired priest who gave lessons on the Roman Ritual from his special desk in the Curia library, then simply a pastor whose bones could no longer lift him from the bed, whose muscles seemed slack and quiet when they had once brought a happy, sprightly priest from one case to the next.
A few years after Fr. Levi left, so did Fr. Romy go, also a retiree in the house that had sheltered Fr. Levi, also a teacher to his very last breath. He watched, smile glowing, as Matteo pronounced every word of the Last Rites; as Matteo prayed through litany after litany, with tears streaming down his cheeks; as Matteo knelt at all the right places, stood at all the right places, bowed at all the right places.
And there was Fr. Romy on the bed, mouthing the words, wrinkles deep where he had smiled, skin stretched taught where he had worried, eyes deep as though they had never held any tears. For a moment, Fr. Romy had lost all the strength that had made him both guide and scholar, exorcist and pastor. He labored through every breath, stared at Matteo, clasped his fingers around the beads of a rosary that shone dark ebony against his pale skin.
When he left, there was no blinding light, no burst of gold, no explosion of color. There was only a gentle spirit, almost a child, who stood by the side of the bed, held her hand to the priest’s forehead, and spoke in images.
Matteo could see them, so intent was the angel, so full of energy was she, as though she were ready to scatter off into a thousand stars. He saw a house shadowed by purple light and bustling with the laughter of a little boy running around and hoping to be a priest. Then there was a house in Rome that seemed to tremble with the shouts of mothers and cries of babies from far away. Then there was a hut in the middle of a rice field, shaking with activity, quaking with fear as cannons and gunfire broke through the whisper of crickets and cicadas. Then there was the House of the Jesuits; then the retirement home in Rome.
And then the tiny house of the very beginning reappeared. There was no little boy running around, no purple light to cloak the house. This time, it was a quiet place, crowned with bushes of white hibiscus, surrounded by twittering birds, and marked by a path that led to a door that had always opened to admit the priests who visited and investigated the apparition of Lipa and the exorcism cases that seemed to spring so naturally from places of great spiritual activity.
The images shone gentle in Matteo’s mind, as though the angel were slowly coaxing its ward to look back on a life well lived. The rest of the room was solemn: there were priests, exorcists, even Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde, who had come to pay their last respects to the man who had cared for their son in their absence. Outside was a winter morning whose biting chill could not be overcome by meager sunshine, whose light breeze danced with the ghostliest of falling snow.
It was not so within, for the angel by the bed, though of a low rank, carried with her a whole season of summer.
You have always opened your house to others, my soul. You shall now go home.
Fr. Romy’s leave-taking was perhaps the quietest of the five exorcists, and yet it was the loudest in Matteo’s heart.
After close to four decades of having fathers who listened to his stories and gave him courage, he, the boy who could see angels, was all alone once again.
He no longer dreaded the loneliness, for he saw the family and friends that created the shield of humanity all around him, recognized the mere wisps of angels that floated across his vision, acknowledged that there, too, were dark forces that would never triumph no matter how loudly they screamed to be noticed.
For the next few years after Fr. Romy left, Matteo traveled across the world, sometimes with his parents, sometimes with his sister and her family, and yet always with a spirit of wanting to know, of wanting to learn, of wanting to carry on lessons long given and missions long entrusted. He would visit and minister to cases in houses in the mountains, rooms in the cities, even huts hidden in the jungles, where the roars of feral cats and chitters of bats shielded the screams of the possessed. He became Fr. Matteo Castroverde, S.J. one of the few remaining Jesuits who had learned the Old Rite – the only priest who had a special charism, the quietest priest who did not readily give his gifts away.
Fr. Levi was right: his father’s counselor was a true friend. When Fr. Romy left, Fr. Anthony Lecter took over as his spiritual director; except this time, the ministry was no mere task to meet victims, but a project that Fr. Lecter had planned for years, and that Fr. Romy had built as his legacy – though neither of them had spoken to each other until Anthony and Romy met in Rome.
That, too, shall be yet another story to tell, for when one writes of angels, one is wont to shift amongst scenes in time, to duplicate the ever so many threads that unite humanity, and yet to do so with the most incomplete, most beggared of words. Fr. Anthony, so ubiquitous in so many lives, was simply a thought in the mind of a young Jesuit exorcist, one afternoon in Rome – and it is to that scene that we return.
Matteo had yet to see the last breaths of his mentors. He had yet to experience the ever-so-many luncheons with his parents, who would not stop embracing him no matter where they were, no matter in whose company they found themselves. He had yet to watch his sister grow into her motherhood, and yet never lose her sense of humor. He had yet to join Yaya and her husband for their simple, but delicious dinners at their restaurant, where the evenings always ended with Yaya’s Benicio singing an aria for their guests. He had yet to meet the two doctor Santoses once more, whom the Vatican had tracked down and brought to Rome. Again, there were tears and much storytelling; and again, Matteo had yet to witness the reunion.
He had yet to minister to cases, to head the investigation at Lipa, to find himself once again stationed in the country of his birth, living in the house of his very first spiritual director – an exorcist meeting an old enemy, a priest suddenly thrust once again into a battle resurrected by a world illuminated in darkness.
We must return to that afternoon, in Rome, where the young Jesuit Matteo finally realized that he had been trained all his life to carry on with a mission that was as daunting as it was noble. Fr. Romy, on the other hand, seemed calm: he had prayed the Angelus, and then gone on to read the book; he sometimes watched Fr. Levi, to check if the man was awake; and then he finally looked up and saw his ward staring at him.
“Are you hungry already?” Fr. Romy spoke in a high whisper, “Do you want money for dinner?”
Matteo could not help laughing (though low), “I’m all right, Father,” he replied, “I’ll wait. Besides, I can’t speak Italian.”
“It’s close enough to Spanish,” Fr. Romy retorted, brushing the boy’s concern away.
“I was never good at Spanish,” Matteo shrugged.
“Well, Exodo was right – off to the Dominicans you go.”
The last voice had come from the bed, where Fr. Levi’s eyes were still closed, but where he was stifling his laughter so much that he shook with what looked to be an onslaught of giggles. What resulted was a chorus of laughs: Matteo’s deep guffaws, Fr. Levi’s high-pitched cheer, Fr. Romy’s almost boisterous shout.
They laughed, bellies shaking, cheeks stretched out, lungs aching. They laughed loud, until the sound bounced across the walls, until Matteo was seated once again, and Fr. Romy was clutching his stomach, and Fr. Levi had to sit up so that he could breathe properly. They laughed long, as though they had not truly laughed for years – and indeed, for a decade, they had hidden themselves, spoken in whispers, held back their happiness.
That evening, all of Rome was joy, all of Rome was love, and the three Jesuits were finally free.
“Now, Matteo,” Fr. Levi was the first to be sober, and he waved Matteo to the bed, “I need you to listen to me.”
Matteo obeyed, and felt the fear in his heart dissipate as Fr. Levi took both his hands, held them firmly, and looked up at him with eyes cloudy, yet clear with intent.
“We might have threatened to push you away, but remember that your home has always been with us,” the old priest began, smile wide, cheeks glowing, “And yes, yes, I know, you shall tell me that you already know this, but allow me to say that I have waited a decade to hear your voice, to listen to how you think through your decisions. I have waited a decade to witness how you wait for the true moment to speak; how you really, truly discern.”
Matteo had, indeed, been inclined to protest. He was about to assure Fr. Levi that he already knew how he was always the little son of the exorcists (and now their brother), but there was something in the man’s grip – and the warmth of his guardian angel – that urged him to be quiet. He locked gazes with Fr. Levi, saw Fr. Romy nodding out of the corner of his eye, felt a breeze stir the room but never chill his bones.
“I always prayed for you while I waited, as St. Ignatius would advise,” Fr. Levi went on, grasp strong, but trembling, as though he were fighting to hold on to the boy, “I am looking at you now, and I know that I have not prayed for nothing, and that I have not waited in vain. Your language is that of listening, and watching, Matteo, even when the whole world is running and shouting and fighting. Your language is silence, and discernment. Never lose it.”
Matteo had yet to see the many places that his language of listening would take him. But there, in that early evening in Rome, with his hands clasped between Fr. Levi’s, under the gaze of Fr. Romy, in the midst of ever so many angels who roamed and guarded the city – in that moment of an in-between of bliss and joy, Matteo knew that the words were a lesson he would carry for the rest of his days.