Those same tears were shed at their greatest only that weekend, in the clinic, as the decidedly normal Castroverde family strove to accept that one of their own had been given a strange, frightening gift. Those same tears had been shed for the loss of normalcy, the anticipation of troubles to come, the anxiety that any human would feel when one felt that one’s body was mere bones tossed in a sea of uncertainty.
And yet it would not be the last time that the tears would be shed, though for another reason, for Matteo had fair cause to bawl and scream. The world in which he was raised grew increasingly mistrusting of its leaders: there were deepening chasms between those who saw nationalism in principles and those who saw nationalism exclusively in one’s unconditional love for one’s leaders; there was hatred, and secrecy, and corruption in ever so many levels of government, in the hearts of ever so many of the children of deceitful men.
This, once again, is jumping too far ahead of the story (where angels are involved, time is both of the essence, and yet the essence itself, such that we can play with its supposed linearity). Matteo, like any child gifted with a special kind of clairvoyance, now had to be assisted and guarded. His gifts, the cardiologist said, opened the child to all kinds of attacks, including the malignant and the demonic.
This time, his mother no longer covered her little boy’s ears. She and her husband listened closely, as the cardiologist and pediatrician spoke.
No, the pediatrician had never seen a case like Matteo’s, but she recommended that the parents take the gift seriously – and yet take their child’s normal life seriously as well, from his regular vaccination schedule to his vitamins. Matteo would be unique, but he should not be made to feel as though life had to stop because of his situation.
At that, the little boy nodded, giggled, as though he truly understood.
“Perhaps his angel is speaking to him and making him see what all this means – in only the language that the angels can speak through little babies,” the cardiologist announced, as Matteo continued to giggle, and as his mother smiled despite the tears still streaming down her cheeks.
And no, the cardiologist was not an expert in such cases, but he was familiar with how some people had very specific gifts that the church had to watch over and guard. Misused gifts were an entry point for demons: such gifts were bestowed upon angels, and without the grace of the angels, humans tended to assume that they were like unto God, that they had powers and could command armies or grant wishes or dictate the future (the cardiologist claimed that he could not explain it well, and the time would come when there would be someone far more well-versed than he who could speak with wisdom). Those who were genuinely clairvoyant – and there were very, very few – hid their gifts, but honed those same gifts with the guidance of spiritual advisers.
Those spiritual advisers were also priests – and there were Jesuit priests who lived in the campus in the next city, and they specialized in exorcism. They were the last few remaining of their kind, but they knew how to recognize gifts, to help children control them, to help people understand themselves. And because they were exorcists, they were constantly under attack, and were often sick – they had worn-out hearts, and the cardiologist was their doctor.
“You can say that I specialize in keeping very strong hearts far stronger for longer,” the cardiologist smiled, his eyes still on Matteo, who was now trying to grab something from the air in front of him.
“I can also say that he is also in constant danger of tiring his own heart out!” his wife put in, gazing at him sideways as she filled out prescriptions for vitamins for the child, “So many cases week after week – they sometimes call him in the middle of the night!”
“But only if it’s an emergency!” her husband insisted.
“And it’s happening more often!” the pediatrician retorted; then, with sad eyes turned to the Castroverdes, “There are more cases now, you see.”
“Cases?” Matteo’s father had hardly spoken during the checkup, and he had not even shed a tear when Matteo’s gifts finally came to light. He had remained pale throughout, however, and speaking the single word seemed to bring a grayer tinge to his skin, “Do you mean – exorcism cases?”
“Sadly, yes,” the cardiologist replied, “I have been the Jesuits’ cardiologist for close to two decades now, but I’ve never been called back this often – not even when the war ended! I used to do an annual checkup, maybe one every six months. Now, I’m there nearly every week.”
The boy’s parents exchanged glances that said they were sorry they had ever asked, and sorrier still that they had brought their son to the doctor. Little Matteo, however, continued to burble his way through the appointment, sometimes looking up and down at the space next to him, sometimes mumbling words with eyes narrowed as though trying to imitate an invisible someone.
“Please do not be afraid, Mr. Castroverde,” the cardiologist’s smile was both sad and feeble, “I cannot say if this has anything to do with your son’s abilities, but I can say that I shall do what I can to help him – and I strongly, strongly suggest that you talk to the Jesuits.”
“But,” and here, it was the father who spoke once again, this time with a tremble in his voice, as though he did not know how to form his sentences, “But – what will they do? What can they do with Matteo?”
Matteo cooed at the mention of his name, and reached a hand toward his father. The latter, for his part, held the boy’s fingers in his, albeit with less joy than the cardiologist had earlier. There seemed to be a cloud hanging over the man, although no one remarked on it; perhaps the father was a product of his time, when fathers were expected to simply come and go, and bring home the money that would keep the household running.
“To be honest, I really do not know,” the cardiologist sighed, feeling the father’s worry traveling across the room, “But I can assure you that they will not poke, or prod, or test your son. They will talk to you, and perhaps find ways to help you and guide Matteo. And I assure you that I can take you to them myself; and if you do not wish to pursue any kind of conversation or association with them, then I shall drive you home immediately.”
“You are very kind,” the boy’s mother said, head bowed to her son’s curls, as she tried to hide her sobs, “Please let us pay you in some way.”
“Oh, no!” both doctors chorused.
“I only wish to help you,” the cardiologist added, “But you must help yourselves. I shall give you a copy of prayers that the Jesuits gave to me to protect me – thank goodness I never saw the consequences of not praying those prayers! – and I advise you to use them. Your family needs to be together now, and it needs all its strength because you must protect this little one.”
“Angel!” the said little one interjected, as though to remind his elders that they were not the only protectors present.
“It always takes an innocent one to tell us great truths,” the cardiologist shook his head, as though musing on his own forgetfulness, “Many of these prayers ask for help from St. Michael himself, and from the heavenly hosts. Pray them in the morning, pray them before his afternoon nap, and pray them before he sleeps at night. Your entire family must be there. Does he have any siblings?”
“An older sister, Johanna,” the mother replied, embracing her son as the boy bounced in her lap, “She’s in the second grade.”
“Ah! Eight years between you – what a wait!” the cardiologist clapped both his hands together in delight; Matteo imitated him, then giggled at the sound, “You must have prayed very hard for this.”
“We did!” Matteo’s mother glowed despite her tear-stained cheeks, “We prayed to many different saints. Our parents prayed with us, and they waited with us. We do treasure Matteo.”
“As you should all your children,” the pediatrician put in, handing the boy’s mother a vaccination booklet and prescriptions, “Now please let my husband help you. He’s free this same time next week, and he can take you to the university. I can put this all down in a prescription and make my husband sign a strict non-disclosure agreement, if you like.”
Matteo’s parents looked at each other, exchanged a sigh, a nod, and the slightest of smiles.
“We can meet you next week,” the mother spoke, in a high whisper.
“This is for Matteo’s good, and I assure you that my husband is a good man and a very careful driver,” the pediatrician looked at her husband from above her spectacles, “You’ll remember that, yes? Right after lunch, Saturday next week, you pick them up and take them to the university, and then take them home when they need to be home.”
“As you can tell, my wife is my real boss,” the cardiologist rolled his eyes in mock annoyance.
Matteo’s parents laughed for the first time that afternoon, and, indeed, for the first time in weeks. They spoke for a few more minutes, at a far lower level of unease and perturbation, with an air of calm that made the once bubbly Matteo finally nod off in his mother’s arms. The cardiologist whispered that they should leave and make sure that their son stayed asleep all throughout their ride home, to keep him from panicking again; and he promised them that he would see them, keep the boy safe, keep their secret from anyone but the Jesuits.
“Please read the prayers in the car,” the cardiologist spoke to Matteo’s mother, as he saw the couple to the door, “And when you are in doubt, or in trouble, or worry about your young man, then ask his guardian angel to help you. Your son might have a very special, and a very frightening gift, but God does not allow any of us to receive gifts for which we will be unprotected or harmed.”
“Thank you, Dr. Santos,” was Mrs. Castroverde’s answer, her cheeks rounder, her skin rosier, “We’ll really pray this time.”
“And with faith,” was his pointed reminder, spoken low, but with a tremor that made his voice bounce against the door frame, “Never open those prayers and pray them as you would a chant, or – or worse, a spell. These words are not cures, and they are not instant remedies. Your faith must be at the forefront.”
The nod from both parents was more earnest than it was understanding. It looked something like the nod given by a breed of family that held nightly rosaries and went to mass weekly, but listened not to the words, and found meaning in ritual and routine. It had a hint of the nod of the simple sort of folk, whose faith existed by default, who did not have to be reminded that prayers were keys to God’s heart and not the actual powers of God himself. The Castroverdes never meditated on what their faith meant to them, and knew only that their son needed to be healthier and happier, even when the world around him seemed to be burning into ugliness and sin.
So they prayed the prayers as they drove their sleeping son home, prayed by his bedside when he slept that night, prayed the next morning when he awakened, and followed the doctor’s orders to do everything with faith at the center. Matteo’s mother caressed his curls, and Matteo’s father dreamed of a son who would be a doctor who was as solicitous as Dr. Santos. The parents prayed; the parents dreamed.
That week, indeed, was peaceful. Matteo was laughing once again, whether he was babbling to his mother or playing with Johanna, whether he was crawling across the floor or attempting to stand up, whether he was nursing or watching everyone around him. There were times when he would look up at the altar, or watch a blank wall and try to reach for things that no one else could see, or look from one side of the room to the other as though to listen to a conversation between two beings great and invisible.
He giggled, and spoke smatterings of syllables, but always said, “Angel!” with the intonation of an adult.
“Wow!” Johanna exclaimed, as she sat down to the family’s first dinner after the visit to the doctor, “Say it again, Matteo!”
Matteo laughed, looked straight at his sister, pointed at someplace behind her right shoulder.
“Angel!” he smiled, with the brightness of a child discovering a new playmate.
The Castroverdes had to tell their daughter the truth then. Johanna was frightened for but a moment, excited the next, and finally, disappointed. No, she could not tell her classmates, or her friends, or anyone in her family if they ever did visit because nobody ever did (and no she could not put it in a letter to them!). No, she could not write it down in the stories that she so loved to write in her ever-so-many notebooks. But yes, she could protect her brother, because truly, there was no telling what people could do to a boy who could see angels and demons.
“I know,” the little girl had always been precocious, and her excitement, though tempered, trembled on her drawl, “They might storm our house and ask Matteo questions. But can I at least ask Matteo if he sees my guardian angel?”
“Angel!” Matteo continued pointing at her shoulder.
Johanna gasped, and promptly spooned a lump of rice and meat into her mouth, “What does she look like? Is she tall? Is she pretty? Does she have big wings?”
“Oh – my goodness…manners!” Mrs. Castroverde shook her head.
Matteo simply giggled, burst into outright laughter, and then nearly fell backward in his amusement. His father could only watch and breathe what looked like a sigh of amazement. There was very little pageantry to being a father then, for fathers were expected to be quiet pillars who listened and witnessed their families grow into adulthood. Matteo’s father dreamed things in silence.
“So does my guardian angel look like a princess?” Johanna had finally chewed on her food, but she would not relent, “Do you see mommy’s and daddy’s angels, too?”
“He’ll tell us one day, won’t you, little one?” Mrs. Castroverde picked up Matteo, who had been playing on the floor then, and placed him on her lap. He bounced and promptly pointed at different corners of the room, saying “angel!” each time.
Instead of being afraid, or curious, the Castroverdes chose to smile at each other and eat their meal without further conversation on what had occurred at the clinic that afternoon, or what Matteo would be expected to do with his gifts when the time came.
Dr. Santos called the very next day – Sunday, right after the evening mass in his own city – and said that the Jesuits requested that the whole family be present at a meeting the following week. If the child indeed had gifts, then he should never be alone, the doctor said; and if the child needed protection, his entire family would have to pray for him. As many angels as could be mustered for the army, the Jesuits said.
Johanna looked like she was about to burst out of her skin in excitement; Mr. Castroverde, on the other hand, seemed to be treading water in the deepest waters of a calm, undercurrent-ridden sea. And yet despite the jolt to their Sunday routines, the week passed in peace: Johanna was busy with school, Mr. Castroverde had to go to work, and Mrs. Castroverde prepared meals and cleaned the house. The house settled into the normalcy of a baby who could supposedly see the frightening and the invisible.
Dr. Santos was true to his word: he picked up the family the following Saturday and drove them to the university, with the same demeanor of listening serenity that characterized his first inspection of Matteo. He first inquired quickly after Johanna and what she liked studying at school, then Mr. Castroverde and his tasks at work, and then Mrs. Castroverde and the new things Matteo had said and done during the week. It all took a quarter of an hour, and he never started the car.
“Now, we shall not have any conversations, but we have to pray for protection the whole way,” he turned the key in the ignition, “And we shall pray for your little brother, Johanna. Do you know how to lead the rosary?”
“Of course!” Johanna nearly squealed (she was seated in the back seat, next to her mother), “I can help protect Matteo!”
“All prayers help – especially those of big sisters who have an innocent faith in God,” the doctor led the car down the street, farther from the Castroverde house, “Shall we begin?”
The rosary lasted the whole of the ride from the Castroverde house to the university. Johanna’s voice bubbled with authority, though the pitch was near that of a whisper; she intoned the letter H with a loud breath, spoke the N in her amen with relish, even sang the Glory Be when her little brother chanced to look at her and smile. Johanna seemed to delight in the prospect of helping him, and focused on it so well, that when she concluded with the Sign of the Cross, her sigh could be heard throughout the car.
By that time, the car was already under the thick canopy of trees that lined the streets of the Jesuit university campus. Matteo bounced and pointed everywhere – or, to be more precise, everywhere where he could see priests in their soutanes or seminarians in their uniforms. This time, he no longer could enunciate the word “angel”: the syllables ran into each other, like water caressing the stones of a creek flowing downhill. And the baby clapped his little hands and smiled his widest, as though recognizing thousands of his friends coming to visit.
“Why are there no girls?” Johanna spoke above Matteo’s cooing.
Dr. Santos met the child’s eyes in the rearview mirror, “Because this is a university for boys – only boys are allowed to study here.”
Johanna hummed low, lips pursed.
“But one day, they might admit women,” Dr. Santos added, “And maybe you can study here then. What do you want to study?”
“I don’t know yet, but I like writing!” Johanna exclaimed, with levity as buoyant as the still bouncing Matteo, “I think I should be a writer. Maybe I should be a journalist!”
“Ah! Then keep studying and reading, young lady,” the doctor made a turn onto a street that led downward, into what looked like a dense jungle through which a rough road could barely cut, “As you study, and as you read, you will find out that your writing will become stronger – and your dreams will grow bigger, and you’ll want to keep on learning and being better, no matter what career you choose.”
“I hope that she’ll be a good wife to someone first,” Mr. Castroverde spoke, low, in a tone that seemed both correcting and afraid.
“That may or may not come one day, sir, but the best we can do is nourish an intelligent child’s dreams so that they are not simply living in her head,” the doctor spoke rather rapidly, as the car drove deeper into the jungle, and onto paths that made the wheels crunch gravel loudly, “I hope you pardon what might look like my modern take on careers, but you must understand that I am a proud husband to a pediatrician.”
“And I am sure she is a good wife.”
“She was also a very good professional first – someone that our children are proud of.”
Mr. Castroverde simply sat quietly, although there was the slightest of shrugs from his shoulders, as though he disagreed with the doctor but was too grateful for the ride to engage in debate.
Thankfully, there was no further unease, as the car pulled free of the trees, and greeted a blast of white. There, at the end of the road, was a row of buildings, newly painted, only recently built; and in those buildings were windows upon windows that looked out onto the grounds and trees, rooms upon rooms through which figures moved, dancing to the tune of books and scholarship. There were young priests in their plain shirts walking through the grounds, middle-aged priests in their soutanes carrying black volumes that looked as though they had survived several bombings, old priests leaning upon their canes and squinting at the youngsters all around them. Everywhere was the music of a machine that had no mechanism, no visible order, no levers or buttons; but it was a machine that hummed and buzzed all the same, that burst with ideas and humanity in the midst of greenery and trees, that made the children in the car gasp.
Matteo’s words were completely gone; the baby was simply pointing everywhere, wide-eyed, squeaking with delight.
“I am glad to know that our priests-to-be are well protected,” Dr. Santos pulled the car into an empty parking slot, where a variety of new, shiny sedans were also parked, “Now we have some distance to walk: the exorcists are housed farther out, but they are quite close to a meal room and they say that they have snacks for us, so I hope you’re hungry.”
The walk to the meal room was pleasant: the winds of the campus cooled the blast of sun upon the still explosive white of the buildings, the breeze stirred the courtyards and brought with it the smell of newly laid cement and still-drying paint, the noise of the priests seemed to rise out of the enclosure of buildings, so that all conversations continued without the sound bouncing oppressively off the walls. Once or twice, an old priest would greet Dr. Santos; the doctor would introduce the family (“My friends, the Castroverdes”), and the old priest would promptly bless the children.
Matteo would often try to spring out of his mother’s arms then, and reach for the old priests who blessed him. Dr. Santos could only smile, and perhaps imagine what the child saw that made him so ecstatic, made his cheeks glow like twin apples.
Even the younger priests were not immune to the baby’s squeals. They waved and clapped their hands when they passed. Matteo would giggle, wiggle his fingers as he nearly dove free of his mother’s grasp, wave back at them (or at their angels, the family presumed) as the priests walked away.
“It seems so peaceful here,” Mrs. Castroverde remarked, when their group finally walked free of the crowds of priests and seminarians, and found themselves in a path that crossed a garden, “They seem so happy.”
“I want to study here,” Johanna looked up at her father, who was holding her by the hand.
Dr. Santos laughed, “I’m afraid that you cannot be a priest, my dear. But maybe these priests will be your teachers one day?”
“I’d like that!” Johanna skipped as she spoke. The next movement was very slight, but the change it created in the child was immediate. Her father shook his head briskly at her, and glared, in silent remonstrance; she lost her brightness immediately.
Dr. Santos marked what had occurred, and was about to speak, when a voice from across the garden called out.
“All right, who decided to get a heart attack on a Saturday?”
“Can’t a good friend just visit?” Dr. Santos hollered back, laughing.
The family saw a group of four priests under an awning fashioned from a combination of low-hanging branches and neatly trimmed bushes. The priests were rather old and balding, but they were neither weak nor infirm; if anything, they felt joyful, even youthful, as though they spent their days simply watching movies and eating popcorn.
But as the family came closer, and as the group of four waved them nearer, they could see that this group was anything but a set of priests who had nothing else to do but enjoy their solitude. There were the drooping eyes that came from the endless hours spent in sessions, the wrinkled foreheads and leathery skin that perhaps arose from battling the invisible with prayers and furor, the slight limp as testament to the physical damage that demons could do.
Mrs. Castroverde held her son even tighter, and shuddered against him, even as the little boy waved and laughed loud enough for his giggles to bounce across the walls of the courtyard.
“They know we’re coming,” Dr. Santos said, very low, to the Castroverdes, “But nobody else does, so don’t just give your names or talk about Matteo to anyone who passes by. We don’t know who might be listening.”
Again, Mrs. Castroverde trembled and fought to smile; then laughed, as Matteo called out, in the clearest voice he had ever made thus far, “Many angels!”
At that, the priests stared, gasped at the child, and then looked at the family closely, as though calculating whether they had truly heard a babe’s voice or had simply imagined the words.
“Well,” the one who seemed to be the youngest among the priests spoke, “This isn’t real. I’m quite sure we have more than enough demons over here.”
“Either the baby is mistaken,” another priest with blonde-gray hair added, “Or all the demons are in disguise.”
“I would say disguise,” yet another priest said, with a grin that made him look like a comic book character who was both a faithful sidekick and clumsy retainer, “No self-respecting Jesuit would ever have that many angels.”
“Very good, brothers,” the fourth priest groaned; he seemed older than Dr. Santos, but a good deal less serious, “I am not sure whether we have put the family at ease, or if we have completely frightened them out of their wits.”
At that, Matteo screeched with delight – as if he could understand everything! – and opened his arms, as though to embrace the priests. This time, they were genuinely stunned.
“Look at your manners! This is what we get when we deal with demons all day!” a fifth voice came from behind them, and there emerged a priest in an apron spotted with grease and tomato sauce, “Welcome to the new House of the Jesuits, and welcome to Jesuit humor – hello, little baby!”
This time, it was Matteo who was completely struck dumb. He glared at the priest’s left shoulder, hung on to his mother’s arms with trembling grip, closed his fists until his knuckles faded into pale white. Then, his little head turned sharply to the priest’s right shoulder, and there remained, as the baby stared and stared and stared – as any child would when watching a scene for which it had no words. Finally, he smiled, pointed at the still invisible scene, and then clapped his hands.
“Running scary man!” he intoned.
The priest who had last spoken simply stood, watched, was both sad in the eyes and smiling in the mouth as he faced the family. Behind him, the four priests rubbed their arms, coughed, even trembled, but did not speak another word in jest.
“I have a session every night this week, and I’m afraid my work sometimes follows me home,” the priest in the apron said, voice much lower, and directed to Matteo, “I am so sorry you had to see that, little one.”
Matteo blinked at him, smiled, and held out his hands to grasp something, as though there were imaginary balls in front of him. He giggled, in the same burbling, bubbling way that a child would when showered with gifts.
“And I see you’ve also found my guardian angel – so I hope your angel and mine will be friends,” the priest spoke in a near whisper, then nodded at the rest of the Castroverdes, “Let’s have some snacks. I hope the little girl is not too hungry?”
Johanna had been silent the entire time, and had simply been observing each priest with the furrowed brows of a young girl surrounded by many strange people who could all equally be called her father. She held her true father’s hand tighter, but held her head high as she greeted the priest with a, “Good afternoon, no, I am not hungry, thank you.”
“I am of the belief that it is the politest children that must be fed first. So: Let’s get you all to safety,” the priest in the apron half-bowed, walked back, then waved the family with hands a-flurry, almost in panic, “Follow me.”
There was not much farther to walk, but the priest’s frantic greeting seemed to envelope the family and draw it closer to the shade of the buildings. And, as though to give life to the words, the four other priests flanked their group, two on each side, as the entire parade made its way out of the sunshine, into the nearest doorway, and, finally, into a room that faced out into yet another garden. There was a light smell of ammonia and alcohol, barely perceptible in the breeze that blew in from the windows. And there, in the middle of the room, was a table set for ten, with sandwiches, a bowl of spaghetti for one plate, and bottles of Coca-Cola.
Johanna gasped, grinned, and promptly hid behind her father as the priests caught her reaction.
“Good choice of spaghetti for the little girl!” the priest with blonde-gray hair exclaimed, “I wouldn’t have thought of it! But – are those red hotdogs?”
“Pardon our prince from New York,” the priest who was older than Dr. Santos took Johanna by the hand and led her to the spot where the spaghetti bowl was placed, “He is not familiar with your culture and tastes, and knows only his American chocolates and candies. I might be Italian, but I also like red hotdogs!”
“I like red hotdogs, too!” Johanna laughed, as the priest raised his hand for a high five.
“And I am Filipino, but I love Italian spaghetti,” the youngest of the priests spoke, as he led the rest of the family to the table, “Best spaghetti was in Rome!”
“Tourist!” the comic book sidekick priest retorted; and, to Johanna, “We’ll take care of your brother for you, young lady, so don’t you worry. Eat your very red spaghetti before it gets as pale as that poor Italian.”
There was a good deal of banter as the family seated itself, courtesy of five priests who traded words and barbs with aplomb, as though they had not rushed so hastily into the room mere minutes earlier, as though they were not dealing with demons on an almost daily basis. Johanna looked from one speaker to the other, wide-eyed and silent, until the Italian priest sat himself next to her and bade her to eat, because any kind of entertainment was more entertaining when there was food involved.
Mrs. and Mrs. Castroverde simply sat in their chairs, listened, and picked up the names of the priests as they threw jests across the table, and even at Dr. Santos. The youngest priest was Fr. Romy, a Filipino who had trained with the Jesuits in Italy in both preaching and exorcism. The priest who looked like a comic book sidekick was Fr. Jun, also a Filipino, and an anthropologist. The priest who seemed older than Dr. Santos was Fr. Levi, an Italian writer who had spent decades living in the Philippines, and who often threw in Italian words between sentences spoken in flowing, fluent Tagalog. The New Yorker with blonde-gray hair was Fr. Exo, a theologian and professor who spoke the vernacular with a twang. And the Spanish priest in the apron was also a cook, Fr. Genio; he, too, was the peacemaker, as he quieted the rest of his brothers and led the prayer before the meal.
In the light of the afternoon, and in the drone of prayer, the Castroverde couple finally saw the room more clearly. There were medals of St. Benedict hanging over every door frame, as well as crucifixes on every wall. There, too, in the garden outside, were rows of crosses standing against windows shielded with white curtains. And there, seated, with hands folded and heads bowed, were five exorcists who seemed to glow with joy, even as their voices seemed to run with undercurrents of the whispers of the weary.
“Many, many, many angels, mommy,” Matteo mumbled, as he chewed on his teether, and looked at each of the priests in turn, “Many, many angels.”
There was silence after the prayer concluded, and as the priests took their turn to watch the little boy. The five Jesuits had all appeared almost alike, as though the jokes and laughter had covered them all in the same veil of happiness, as though their work cloaked them all in a thin layer of soot. But closer scrutiny, and a respite from the puns and banter, showed that their sufferings manifested in myriad ways, even as their smiles were warm at the Castroverdes. Fr. Romy’s hands looked worn, old, leathery; Fr. Jun’s cheeks drooped like twin hams, pink and pale; one of Fr. Exo’s shoulders was a bit higher than the other, and he shifted constantly, as though he could never sit comfortably in place; Fr. Genio chewed his food ever so slowly, as though his jaw were in lingering pain; and Fr. Levi, though cordial and young in his movements, looked decades old in the eyes.
The priests introduced themselves one by one, addressing Matteo as they did so. They even reached over and shook his little hand. Mrs. Castroverde found the act strange, and her bewilderment shone so plainly, Fr. Exo could not help laughing.
“I am so sorry, ma’am,” his blonde-gray hair looked even duller in the dim light of the room, “I know it feels odd, but trust me when I say that you must talk constantly to your little one. He has to learn how to talk much sooner, and to express himself, and to describe what he sees – if, indeed, he sees angels and demons. He has to be able to go beyond crying about it, not only because it is distressful to both of you, and to your whole family, but because he has to find a way to ease his burdens beyond wordless tears.”
“And talking constantly, in complete sentences, will help him,” Fr. Romy added, standing up to open the bottles of Coca-Cola with a bottle opener that dangled from a chain strapped to his belt. Mr. Castroverde marked that the bottle opener’s base was a large St. Benedict medal, “He has to learn about conversations – although I assume that this might be something you already know, seeing as your elder daughter is quite smart.”
Johanna smiled as she chewed her spaghetti, then swallowed it as hastily as she could. “Thank you, Father,” she spoke, then gave another thank you – this time almost jubilant – as Fr. Levi poured her a glass of Coca-Cola.
“I’m a writer, too!” the sentence tumbled out of Johanna rather clumsily, and she hid her embarrassment by drinking the glass of Coca-Cola down.
“And that’s wonderful!” Fr. Levi clapped his hands, “What do you like writing?”
“Stories,” Johanna burped up the answer. Mrs. Castroverde looked on in horror; but the priest, for his part, held up a hand to signal that all was well, and that the poor mother need only worry about her own sandwiches and the baby Matteo.
Fr. Levi and Johanna commenced, then, with a low conversation on fairy tales, adventures, and helping the baby Matteo learn how to speak by creating stories that would make the child appreciate words. The exchange soon turned to Fr. Levi’s stories about what Italy looked like before the war, what he missed the most about his country, where he went whenever he could go back home, what the pope was like, and what he did at the Vatican City when he had to visit.
Fr. Genio watched the two for a moment, then gestured that the rest of the table should eat. The priests leaned forward and placed sandwiches on the plates of Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde, then on Dr. Santos’, before they filled their own. All the while, they were thanking the couple for coming, thanking Dr. Santos for bringing the case to their attention, and thanking even the baby for being at the table with them.
“I am so glad that you could make it, Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde,” Fr. Genio spoke, as soon as the rest of his Jesuit brothers quieted down and ate their share of the sandwiches, “When Dr. Santos called us last week, we knew we had to help you immediately. Cases like yours are not uncommon, but many of our cases are old – some are, I daresay, dying. Matteo is the youngest. But more importantly: it is rare for parents to immediately accept an invitation to talk to a priest.”
“We’re very close to the church, Father,” Mrs. Castroverde spoke, as she took a bottle of milk from her bag, opened it, and gave it to Matteo, “The children’s grandparents are gone, but they were very religious. My parents went to Quiapo regularly. They prayed for Matteo but they died years before he was born. My husband’s parents went all the way to Obando to pray for Johanna.”
“A province where they dance outside a church for fertility,” Fr. Jun said to Fr. Exo, whose brow wrinkled at the new place names, “You remember Quiapo?”
“Yes, the church with all the shops outside?” Fr. Exo answered.
Fr. Jun and Fr. Exo began a low conversation then, on the different fertility beliefs in the Philippines, as Fr. Genio turned to the Castroverde couple again.
“I’m glad that Dr. Santos brought you to us,” Fr. Genio raised his Coca-Cola bottle in a toast to the doctor, “He described what happened in his wife’s office. No one can say for sure whether your son truly sees what we think he sees, and there is no guarantee that he will always see the same visions with the same vividness for the rest of his life. But we will help you in any way that we can, for as long as the child needs our assistance. Does he have any sicknesses, Horacio?”
The last question was directed to the cardiologist, “None at all,” the man replied, “Baptized, perfectly healthy baby.”
“That’s good, and it’s one less avenue,” Fr. Romy spoke up.
“For – what?” Mr. Castroverde sounded as though he had forgotten how to talk.
“One less opportunity for a demonic attack,” Fr. Genio put in, “Physical weakness, ailments – they are avenues to be closer to God; but in the worst of times, they are gateways of despair, an invitation for Satan to enter.”
Mr. Castroverde shuddered. He hid his trembling, unsuccessfully, with a large bite of his sandwich.
“The gift, moreover, is another gateway,” Fr. Genio’s tone was calm, almost slow, in rhythm with the breeze that blew through the gardens outside, “There are a few things you must know about gifts such as the one your son has. I shall ask Fr. Romy to talk about them, because he studied them while he trained in Rome.”
There was a pause, merciful, to allow the parents to calm down. Mr. Castroverde was downing his sandwich with large gulps of Coca-Cola. Mrs. Castroverde was quiet, and she buried her lips deep within her son’s dark curls. Even Johanna seemed spirited, though she was engaged in a whole other conversation altogether, and was eating spaghetti with a near enough attempt to drown her cheeks in tomato sauce. Matteo alone seemed calm, content, as he continued to drink his milk, even as he giggled softly, even as his eyes darted everywhere.
Fr. Romy finished his sandwich, with a smile at the baby, then at the rather flustered Mr. Castroverde. The child’s father took out a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his forehead, returned the handkerchief, let out a sigh – and, finally, nodded, as though to tell his audience that he was ready to listen.
“Please don’t be afraid,” Fr. Romy dusted his hands free of breadcrumbs, drank some water, and then directed his gaze, in turns, at Matteo and his parents, “As my Jesuit brother said, your son’s gifts are not uncommon. The genuine cases are rare, but not uncommon.
“I’ve trained in Rome, before and after the war. If I might be honest: I flew home long before the Occupation of Italy because of babies. As soon as I heard babies crying even more and more often, and with more and more intensity, I knew that something was wrong. Even my superiors insisted that I fly back, because they had heard about what was going on in China and Indonesia. My Jesuit brothers and I – we all fled to different provinces as soon as I came. We all hid. I hid with my brothers here, around the table, and we endured the war together. Some of my other brothers were not so lucky: they endured the prisons, and I do wish that I had that courage to endure the suffering with them.”
The rest of the priests around the table crossed themselves. There was a quick cloud of murmurs for a while, perhaps as the priests named those of their number who had died in the war, or those who had died not long after because of their wounds or their despair.
“But to be brief: I credit babies with my survival,” Fr. Romy resumed, after another sip of water, “Many children have a gift like Matteo’s because they are innocent and are not limited by human speech. I’ve met children who can see ghosts, or who can read someone’s thoughts, or who have visions about the future. Some of them grew up with their gifts. I’ve sat with parents such as yourself, and I’ve heard the same stories. Their children sometimes stop and just stare off into space, or they run to their rooms and hide under their blankets, or they cry and scream because they can’t understand what’s happening to them – because they’re so young, because they’re so overwhelmed.”
Mr. Castroverde took his son’s hand. The baby was still drinking from his bottle, and he smiled at his father, then played with the man’s fingers, all while continuing with his own meal.
“However, I’ve also met children who discovered their gifts late, around the time they were in school,” Fr. Romy went on, “Maybe they would see ghosts roaming classrooms, or read their teacher’s mind, or see exam questions long before the exams were given.
“There’s a difference between these two groups, and I assure you that at this point, your son is very much blessed. Allow me to explain the difference.
“You see, when a child grows into a gift, or grows up with it, then they can learn to live with it. They see it as a gift that must be cared for and used carefully. If we catch that gift early, then we can protect your child, train him to control his visions, as it were. But we must start early so that he is aware of what he can do, and he keeps no secrets from you, because at this point – and for quite a while – he will trust you as his main protectors, his main authority figures.
“The problem with a child who suddenly develops the gift, or discovers it at a later time, is that they are often subject to the whims of their peers. They might be used – often without malice, but used all the same. The child who can see ghosts is suddenly the life of the party. He becomes the one asked to talk to those long buried, to carry messages back and forth between the living and the dead. The child who can read someone’s thoughts is suddenly the kid who has all these parlor tricks. He becomes the one who can amuse, who can entertain, maybe even be this celebrity who makes it on TV and gets a name, like the Amazing Juan. The child who has visions about the future becomes your seer later, the prized counselor of economists, stockbrokers, politicians – anyone who wants to see the future, to plan their lives accordingly, to get themselves ready and ahead of everyone else.
“I now hope you understand why we waved you inside earlier. We love our Jesuit brothers, but we do not know who is listening, how they’ll interpret an ability to see angels and demons – we don’t know if anyone here, on the inside, might know someone important or dangerous on the outside. We want to protect Matteo, and we want to protect your family.
“Who knows what will happen in this political climate? Indeed… this political climate…”
Fr. Genio sighed. Even Fr. Exo and Fr. Jun, who had finished their own exchange on folk beliefs, were listening to the conversation.
Fr. Romy resumed his speech only after he drank a whole glass of water.
“Let’s talk about the children that develop their gifts much later,” the priest addressed Matteo, who, for his part, met the priest’s gaze, “At an older age, you, the parents, are no longer the authority figures. Older children tend to keep gifts secret, or even use it against their parents when they’re at that exact age that they want independence, but still don’t know what to do with it. I’ve seen it happen, especially in children who strive so hard to be accepted by their friends, who then think that their gifts are their way to other people’s hearts.
“But in doing so, these children open themselves up as targets. To understand the gravity of this target, you must also understand the nature of such gifts.”
Fr. Romy’s voice was deeper now, and was almost lost in the noise of clattering silverware and kitchen utensils in a room close by.
“Now – gifts,” the priest gestured to Matteo, “There are many different gifts that can be accorded to humans. Hearing or seeing ghosts, talking to the dead, seeing the future, reading minds, seeing angels and demons… what is important to remember is that these are not simply gifts in an ordinary sense, the way you have children who are very good at mathematics or science or writing.
“These gifts do not exist in a simple here and now. They entail that the senses go beyond the boundaries of time and space. They give the person the opportunity to see what is on the other side of death. Death is a place where time stops, where your soul moves to another plane, where your human senses are not meant to work – and yet some people have the gift of talking to those whose language no longer matches our own. These gifts also give people the opportunity to know things that are invisible, like thoughts or hidden objects; or things that are not easily discerned because of the limits of human weakness, like the future.
“These gifts are characteristic of beings that transcend time and space, that are anywhere and anywhen. We call them supranatural beings, because they are above and beyond the forces and limits of nature. We can also call them angels.”
Fr. Romy paused, drank more water, and looked at Fr. Genio. The latter motioned that he should go on.
“We don’t know why some humans have such gifts, and why such gifts persist until adulthood,” and here, Fr. Romy was joyful, as though he had recalled memories that burned bright in his imagination, “Some children lose their gifts when they get older. Perhaps it has something to do with their innocence. Those who have no sin, and who have no malice or schemes are perhaps closest to the angels; and because the angels have these gifts, then maybe by some miracle, children get the gift as well. We will never know.
“But what is more bewildering is why people have such gifts at all, and why they persist even in those who are not of the faith, who were not even baptized. In any case, we can refer to such extraordinary gifts as a charism: something given by the Holy Spirit, but always for the good of the Church.
“That last one is important: a gift must always be used for the good of the church, and not for one’s own wills and wiles. It must be used so that others can benefit, and so that others do good as a result. A charism, a gift, is not something to feed one’s emotional needs, or to attract attention to oneself, or to feed one’s vanity.
“To use a gift for one’s own benefit, or for the benefit of one person who will use it for evil, is evil. When the focus is on what one wants rather than what God wills for a person, then that gift has already been perverted. That gift is misused and abused; and he who wields the gift is in danger of making himself like unto God – the way that one angel thought, at the beginning of time.
“Because there is something you must remember: demons are fallen angels, and they have the same gifts as their good counterparts. They too, can see the future, talk to the dead, know the hidden and the invisible – but these gifts are used to feed their hatred for humanity, their hatred for God’s creation. These gifts are not used to build; they are used to destroy.”
And here, Fr. Romy stopped completely. The period at the end of his sentence, though unseen, seemed to settle onto the table with finality that made even the pair of Johanna and Fr. Levi pause, stare at Fr. Genio, and wait.
Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde, though perturbed earlier, were now stilled, and perhaps on account of Fr. Romy’s explanation. The only sound in the room, for the next few moments, was cooing from Matteo, who had already stopped drinking from his milk bottle, and who was now pointing at different places, or reaching out to grab invisible globules of light.
“Hello!” the baby said, with the letters still thickly forming on his tongue, “Hello angels!”
Fr. Genio smiled, then laughed as Matteo giggled at whatever only his baby eyes could see.
“I pray that you will keep this same innocence no matter how old you are, child,” the priest spoke, with a sigh that sounded as though his lungs were half-filled with fluid, “If you indeed will see angels for the rest of your life, then you must be strong, but you must also be pure.”
The other priests crossed themselves, in a swift, whispered prayer. Even Johanna stopped eating, laid her fork and spoon down, bowed her head, and followed their example. She stole a glance at her little brother however, and threw him a smile, as he laughed, pointed at her, clapped his hands, and said something that sounded as though he were calling an angel by its name.
“Now, Mr. Castroverde, Mrs. Castroverde, I must repeat – and reassure you – that this gift might not last for your son’s entire life,” Fr. Genio took a small box of pills out of his pocket, retrieved a pill, drank it, and raised his glass in a toast to Dr. Santos, “But while we know that he has it, we shall help him. We can teach you prayers, and we can teach you how to calm him if and when he has episodes.”
“Will you need him here again next week?” Dr. Santos had hitherto been quiet, and his voice had a ring of familiarity in it that brought warmth through the cool breezes that blew through the room, “I’m afraid I have to go to my own doctor then.”
“Not a problem at all – I can drive the family myself,” Fr. Jun put in, “You’ve done a lot, Horacio, so you have to rest.”
“And have time to take care of us, too!” Fr. Exo spoke as he chewed on the last of his sandwich, “The new medicine doesn’t sit well with me, by the way; and before I forget, I might need a prescription for the one I used to take.”
“This wouldn’t happen if you didn’t eat so many chocolates and then sit down during your lectures,” Fr. Genio grinned.
“And that is why I need new medication,” Fr. Exo retorted, grin even wider, “I want to keep eating chocolates and sitting down while I lecture!”
Fr. Genio simply shook his head, “Ay, Exodo, if you don’t take of yourself, I don’t know who will teach your classes!”
Fr. Exo rolled his eyes, but nevertheless stood up, “Let’s go, Horacio – my Jesuit brother will give me a real heart attack at this rate,” the priest’s New York accent emerged as he waddled off to a corner of the room, “Goodness, sent off to a checkup just when things got exciting!”
“Check him well, Horacio! His head is harder than concrete!” Fr. Genio called after him. The only responses were a laugh from Dr. Santos, and a wave from Fr. Exo, which seemed to be a gesture that looked more like he was brushing Fr. Genio out, “And you’d better tell me what his new meds are so that I can watch him!”
“Yes, mother!” Fr. Exo sneered.
Fr. Genio might have been genial, but as soon as the checkup commenced, he turned somber, almost grave.
“I hope we aren’t frightening you, Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde,” he turned to the couple, as well as to Matteo, who was watching both Fr. Exo and Dr. Santos as they conferred in the far corner of the room, “We are brothers, in so many more ways than one. The exorcism ministry is perhaps the most difficult in the church, and the loneliest, so when we find those who are like us, we tend to talk as though we are family.”
“Or we tend to take every opportunity to talk to the young, because they give us hope in a future that often looks too tiring to even be imagined,” Fr. Romy nodded toward the still chatting pair of Fr. Levi and Johanna, “I hope you don’t mind that our brother is filling your daughter’s mind with ideas. He loves teaching young writers.”
“I do not mind it at all,” Mrs. Castroverde beamed, “We’re very proud of Johanna. She does well in all her classes.”
Mr. Castroverde smiled, though his enthusiasm was tempered, even dampened by his gaze at his son. He simply ate his sandwich, looked down at his plate, chewed with the speed of someone who could see detailed, albeit bleak futures in his imagination.
“In any case, you might be wondering why we called the entire family here,” Fr. Genio resumed, with his hands on his glass of water, and his eyes on Matteo, “It is not only because you have a baby that could not have come here on its own. The life of a seer, or a clairvoyant, or a child with charism, is very difficult. You will need to support him, to truly love him and accept him, whatever happens to his gift. And of course, you will need to teach him about the faith, live the faith – you will be good examples to him, so that he continues to be virtuous, to guard himself, to keep himself safe, long after you are gone.”
Mrs. Castroverde nodded, then returned Matteo’s now empty milk bottle to her bag. The child had already been playing with it for quite a while, and was sometimes making sport of holding it up, or even pushing it forward, as though an unseen being were asking to examine the thing.
“To counsel the child is to counsel the whole family,” Fr. Genio spoke only after Mrs. Castroverde laid the baby across her lap, and allowed Matteo to lean his head against her chest, “And to counsel you well, we also need to know more about you. Please tell us more about what you do. We can start with you, Mr. Castroverde.”
The father smiled briskly; this time, he seemed alert.
“I’m Matias Castroverde, and I’m an accountant for a firm that specializes in corporate law and contracts,” he gestured toward the rest of his family, “My wife is a secretary at a warehouse that delivers food to different restaurants. My daughter is in the second grade and likes playing with dolls. And this, our baby, is Matteo, who was born last year.”
The priests at the table looked both perplexed and offended, though their expressions were rather subtle (and could be discerned only by the more intuitive Mrs. Castroverde). Fr. Jun and Fr. Genio exchanged a look that could be defined as irritation. Fr. Levi could hardly hide what appeared to be disgust, though he tamed it immediately as he swallowed an imaginary lump down his throat.
The silence, though momentary, was weighty; and it was broken only by Johanna’s protest of, “I don’t like playing with dolls – I like writing!”
Fr. Levi patted her on the head, “No need to be so alarmed, dear child,” his smile, once so bright, now fell into shadow, “You can tell your father more about what you like doing without being angry at him.”
Their conversation continued; from the few words that could be heard across the table, it appeared that Fr. Levi was talking about angels, the Fall of Lucifer, and the different choirs and their functions in the heavenly hierarchy. And from the way that Johanna was pronouncing the words, and saying them slowly as she repeated them, it appeared that the little girl was learning her lessons swiftly and with more enthusiasm than for anything else she had learned hitherto.
Mr. Castroverde finally sensed, perhaps, that the change was due to him, and out tumbled a sentence that sounded like, “I only wish her to be a proper girl.”
“We all wish many things for our children, but we must also listen to their dreams,” Fr. Genio spoke, with nearly every syllable hammered out as though it were an anvil dropping from the sky. His gaze, however, was gentle, and he appeared to be both a professor admonishing a class and a priest delivering a homily to a stubborn crowd.
Mr. Castroverde became the pillar once again; he seemed silent, withdrawn, and apparently indifferent. The priests at the table, on the other hand, observed him far more closely than before.