But to tell of all these visions is to leap too far into the story itself. Matteo was, first of all things, a human child born into the decidedly normal Castroverde family. And his behavior, so odd as it was, played deeply into their fears.
Matteo’s parents noticed how their son seemed to live in a faraway world, how his eyes sometimes wandered to their family altar, how his attention sometimes drifted when his elder sister came home from school in tears, how he sometimes cooed to something when he was playing in his room. And sometimes, he would bawl his little lungs out, pointing at something no one else could see, hiding from something he could hardly even name.
His father worked as an accountant at a law firm in Manila, and his mother was a secretary at a small warehouse nearby. His mother and father interacted with a disparate group of people, and yet they all said the same thing when Matteo’s parents expressed their misgivings about the boy: maybe he has imaginary friends.
And by imaginary friends, they all referred to something far less innocuous than the American counterpart, far more malicious than some child’s imagination would allow. No one thought twice about making any such observation then: it was the late 1960s, the world was still rebuilding itself after two wars, and there was still talk of ghosts among the people of Manila who had survived the bombs.
Matteo’s own parents had survived the Second World War by fleeing to the provinces with their families long before the Japanese set foot on the country’s capital. Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde had been children when the war broke out, children when it ended, mere students in the game of life when the country began the long process of recovery – they had both grown up cautious, guarded, observant, as though a Japanese soldier could emerge at any time, from out of any bush or from behind any corner.
There was an air of fear, as though everyone had to tiptoe around Metro Manila lest it suddenly disintegrate into dust.
There, too, was an air of uncertainty, of some kind of panic that had tiny feet and made sport of people’s hearts.
The year Matteo was born, a new president came to power. He was a brilliant lawyer, the campaigns said; a strong statesman, his followers promised. He rose from the ranks of politicians, became senate president, wrote bills that would forever live in the books of those who would study the law. He said he was a war hero decorated with accolades that ran the gamut of bravery and intelligence, and he was therefore the great general that would truly lead the country out of the ruins of war and into progress. His wife, queenly, beautiful, stood by his side and shone like a gem to supplement his supposed war medals.
There now seemed to be a voice for the people long silenced; and that voice admittedly carried with it charisma, enlightenment, sharp sense that made the poor pay attention, that made the rich take notice.
All seemed well when the president won; but Matteo could see the atmosphere cloud with what others sensed was an undercurrent of unease. There was talk of lies and deceit, in whispers by adults, in words that the child would not understand for years yet. There was talk of bridges and roads being built, of theaters and galleries being constructed, of money that supposedly came from taxes, of taxes that were used to buy the ruling family its luxuries and indulgences, of money that was being borrowed from other countries and from foreign banks at interest rates so high, it would take generations upon generations of Filipinos to pay them –
But the voice for the silenced continued to speak, and his wife seemed to provide both amusement and cheer, so all should have been well.
And yet the child Matteo, who could not understand what the talk of taxes and borrowing meant, who could not imagine the implications of byways and highways of money traveling across the world – the child Matteo could see what the lies were breeding.
There were demons everywhere, with cloven hooves that clip-clopped on the asphalt streets as clearly as though there were herds of wild horses galloping across the city, with eyes that burned fire and horns that stood stark ebony against the noonday sun. The visions had already begun to fade, but with the passing years, and with the strange man on television and his glowing wife, the demons seemed to be greater in number, brazen in their attacks, unafraid to even look him in the eye and laugh.
Matteo went from gently talking to his guardian angel to screaming and weeping everywhere his parents took him. It was embarrassing to have to try to silence a once docile child, but Matteo did not know the meaning of embarrassment yet, nor of social graces. He did, however, know the meaning of fear that was so deep, even his soul could not stop screaming.
There were times that his guardian angel could hide him; but sometimes, the hordes were too great, and the battles too urgent, that she sometimes let fall one of the veils that would have kept the war invisible. And then Matteo would scream, and she would try her best to protect him, but there were simply too many monsters in too short a time.
Finally, one day, Matteo’s parents took him to his pediatrician. There were no psychiatrists then (it would have been shameful for a family to even contemplate seeing a doctor for ailments which most people were convinced could be prayed away), and the boy, though baptized, had not yet been brought to church regularly for mass. His grandparents had promised to pray for him, and they did, but even the novenas had made no great change in the child. Matteo’s parents, therefore, did not think the screaming to be supernatural in origin, only that there was something wrong with a little boy who had once been such a happy toddler, and that the cure could be found in medicine.
Matteo’s pediatrician was married to a cardiologist; both doctors were present on the day that Matteo – a screaming bundle of redness and tears – was brought into the clinic.
When he entered, he suddenly fell quiet, and looked at the corner of the room, where a statue of the Virgin Mary stood.
His parents nearly dropped their child in surprise. It had been mere minutes since Matteo’s cries filled their car to the brim with sound, bounced off the streets through which they walked, made pinpricks of echoes through the hospital hallways. Now, the child was peaceful, attention caught, lips forming what seemed to be both words and tinny expressions of awe.
The pediatrician was close in age to a kindly grandmother, with white wisps of hair and long fingers that looked like soft grasses in a breeze. She took the baby’s pulse, listened to his heart, looked at Matteo’s ears and throat. She saw nothing amiss in the four-year-old.
But her husband – he, too, was like a doting grandfather, with a bald head and eyes that withdrew nearly completely under their lids when he smiled his widest. He was quiet, observant, and yet his silence was pregnant with close scrutiny of the child.
“I am sorry to interrupt your checkup,” he spoke at last, in the vernacular, as the parents were rather struck dumb by the sudden silence, “But may I ask how often it is that your son is frightened?”
“Almost all the time,” the mother replied, hands wandering to Matteo’s head, as she caressed his dark curls of hair, “These last few weeks, he was always screaming and crying. I don’t think he sleeps anymore. I hope he’s not sick.”
The mother’s last sentence was said in a near whisper, as though any anticipated sickness was shameful.
“He isn’t, ma’am,” the pediatrician put in, comforting, “But I hope you’ll let my husband ask you questions.”
“Is there a problem with his heart?” the father finally inquired, voice faint.
The pediatrician smiled; and yet there was a hint of sadness, as though she were about to hear something that was tragic, over which the parents would have no control.
“Don’t worry,” the cardiologist took his turn to speak, “I ask these questions all the time, and I do want to help. You say that your son is frightened almost always – what does he do when he’s frightened?”
“He points at things and tries to hide his face,” the mother answered, “And sometimes he says that someone should go away because he’s scary. ‘Scary man, go away.’”
The cardiologist nodded, allowing a pause to descend onto the room before he spoke again. “I know this question is strange, but I hope you will still answer it: when he starts saying things like these, do you notice anything about the room you’re in?”
“Nothing – it’s – he just shouts all the time.”
“What about at home, say, in his room – when he cries – do you notice anything?”
“It gets cold,” the father put in, as he wiped his forehead with one arm, “I noticed it a few times. It seemed cold. His room sometimes gets cold.”
The mother looked sharply at her husband, not so much in alarm, but in surprise, as though she, too, had known something and had not expected him to share her observations. She met the cardiologist’s eyes, and made no secret of her loud swallow.
The cardiologist simply nodded, “So – what do you do when your son starts shouting or crying?”
“We pray next to his bed.”
“Does this calm him?”
“Yes – sometimes. But – lately – nothing seems to work.”
The parents looked at each other, then at their little boy, who continued to watch the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room.
“He sometimes watches the family altar,” the mother said, “And – I suppose the statues calm him.”
The last words arrived in what felt like a parade of letters that suddenly died out, perhaps as the speaker realized how poorly the sentence described the situation, perhaps as the weight of the implications of the baby’s behavior finally dawned on his mother. She held her other free hand to her mouth, as her gaze traveled to her ever-so-tranquil little boy, to the clinic’s altar, to the pediatrician’s husband, to her husband, and to Matteo.
He had smiled, and he began to giggle, arms reaching forward as though trying to grasp at something both charming and elusive.
The cardiologist watched the child for some time, held out his finger, spoke to Matteo as the baby’s hand closed on his, nodded as the child cooed and articulated what felt like syllables that were punctuated by giggles.
“That statue is actually quite special, young man,” the doctor said, slow, as though he were teaching the baby a lesson that would mean the difference between life and death later on, “You are not just looking at the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. You are looking at her as she appeared in Lourdes, in France.”
Matteo smiled, gurgled in his throat, then looked up, carrying the doctor’s finger with him as though to make the man see what he was seeing.
“But there is something more, if you look around her neck,” and here, the doctor tried to follow the child’s gaze, for Matteo had trained his eyes straight at the statue, and had gasped, as though a lesson were truly unfolding before him, “There is a rosary there, which I received as a gift from a priest who visited the shrine of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, who also lived in France many years ago. It was blessed right there, where the saint still lies today.”
The baby laughed this time, but it was the laugh of a child who had made a discovery with a dear friend by his side.
“St. Jean-Marie Vianney was a very holy man,” the doctor went on, still as gentle as before, “He was a priest. People all over the world confessed to him when he was alive. They waited for hours just to see him! Sometimes, people lined up for days, just so he could hear their confessions. And they say – they say even the devil was afraid of him.”
Matteo’s mother gasped, and immediately cupped her hands over her son’s ears. Even the boy’s father shook his head fast, tinnily, as though something were stuck in his head that had to be jiggled out.
“Please don’t say such things,” the mother put in, “He’s just a baby. He shouldn’t hear words like that.”
“Ma’am, I think he has already seen things for which he has no words yet,” the cardiologist spoke, his voice a pitch deeper, his pace quicker, even as the baby Matteo was still watching the altar and playing with the doctor’s hand, “Your son is not sick, but from how you described his behavior, I believe that he also has a very rare gift.”
No one dared to ask what the gift was, as the last sentence pounded into the silence, as the words rang in little echoes through the clinic. The parents simply watched their boy: the mother with her hands still over the child’s ears, the father with his own hands clasped to his forehead as he bowed it to the floor.
The only movement in the room came from Matteo himself, who was smiling, even giggling out the word “happy” over and over and over. And, when the word seemed to have exhausted its power, he intoned what sounded like burbling, sticky syllables, as though they were meant to be words, but ended up like sugar crystals in a sea of candy. Matteo dwelt on the syllables, played with their pitch, opened his mouth and pursed his lips in turn; then, looked up suddenly, stared, and spoke the word with syrupy slowness.
“Angel,” he drawled.
All eyes in the room followed his: the doctors in delight, the parents in fear. But there Matteo was, back at his preoccupation with the cardiologist’s hand, and seemingly a child all over again.
“If I might excuse myself from being the little baby’s new toy,” the cardiologist said, extricating his fingers from Matteo’s, “But I am glad to hear the young man speak. I think it’s a good sign, Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde. Your son is being taught by a good angel who is trying to protect him.”
“Angel!” Matteo exclaimed, clearer and faster this time.
“Angel indeed!” the cardiologist added, as he stood up, reached for the altar, and took one of the statues half-hidden behind the Virgin Mary, with both his hands concealing the base, “I want to show you an angel, Matteo. I hope he can help us, and he can help you. This is St. Michael.”
The room knew who St. Michael was. His statues were in nearly every church. His likeness was painted on advertisements and bottles of a famous beer brand. Even his prayers were said after every mass. This particular statue was not unlike any of the other images: St. Michael was in armor, with a sword raised high, white feathery wings unfurled, legs bare – save for the coiling tail and burning claws of a half-serpent, half-demon, which cowered at the angel’s feet but blared forth eyes of fire.
The cardiologist knelt before the baby, still holding the angel’s statue by its base, still covering the feet of St. Michael and hiding the demon that the archangel trod underfoot.
Matteo reached out for the statue, smile wide, but the doctor would not come any closer.
“Please hold your son, and tightly,” the cardiologist warned, “I need you to trust me.”
The boy’s parents paled. His father nearly made to stand up, but his wife laid a hand on his arm, nodded, and promptly embraced her boy even closer.
“And I now ask Matteo’s guardian angel to protect him, and to teach him that what he is about to see is not real, that it is only a representation, but that it will help us understand him,” the cardiologist finished.
All the adults in the room crossed themselves.
The cardiologist watched the baby for a while, hardly moving, as he mumbled a prayer under his breath. Anyone who listened closely would have heard the prayer to one’s guardian angel.
Matteo simply sat quietly, eyes on the statue before him.
“St. Michael is a special angel, Matteo,” the cardiologist spoke, gentle once again, “He was a brave soldier, the bravest in God’s army. He fought a great battle when the world was very young. You see, some of the other angels did not love God, but they loved only themselves, and they wanted to be like God. They were in a big war in Heaven, and the bad angels lost.
“Every day, St. Michael still fights this war, and he fights for you, too. I will ask your parents to call on him always, to protect you, all right? And when you are older, you also have to call on St. Michael, because you and he, and your guardian angel will have to fight this creature together.”
And so saying, the cardiologist removed one hand from the base of the statue, showing the devil that had been roughly carved there. It was not a precise rendition: the limbs were disproportionate, the red paint was haphazardly drawn over the eyes, the open jaws were missing a few fangs. But the reaction of the boy was immediate: the cry was that of a child who had been frightened by the same specters, day after day; the posture was that of a baby that wished to hide in his mother’s womb once again and never come out.
Howsoever loud his screams were, and how they tore his sobs apart, the words that emerged were clear.
“Scary man! Go away!”
His mother burst into tears.