The interview did not take long, though it did appear as though the priests were scrutinizing Mr. Castroverde, even as he spoke far less than his wife did. First, there were questions about how often the family went to mass, prayed, and went to confession.
“You will need to bring your son with you to Mass now,” Fr. Romy said, “The sooner he is acquainted with the sacraments, the safer he will be.”
Then, there were questions about their home. When was it built? How long had they owned the property? What used to be there?
“It’s good that you have a new place,” Fr. Jun spoke, “We know of a few people who returned to their lots and built over their homes that were destroyed during the bombing of Manila. It takes more than one blessing to set such places right. But I advise you to watch your surroundings all the same, because we don’t know what spirits are still lingering – and if they are even spirits at all. The dwarves are fairly common for houses built on grasslands, so watch out for them at your place.”
Then, the questions proceeded to childcare. Did the baby have a nanny, or was his mother raising him without help?
“I suggest that you get a nanny to help you,” Fr. Exo said, from across the room, where he was still conversing with Dr. Santos as the latter wrote out prescriptions, “You don’t want any additional stress.”
“Stress can lead to all sorts of attacks,” Fr. Jun rejoined, as Fr. Exo began to cough, “You might feel resentful, or overwhelmed, or powerless, or burdened – and these are things that demonic forces can use against you. They can deepen these emotions, make you feel them more keenly, make you think that you are alone.”
“But I have to raise my son,” Mrs. Castroverde should perhaps have appeared more insistent, but she sounded frail, at that moment, as though she had simply mouthed words that she had been taught to repeat since birth, “Isn’t it a mother’s job to do that?”
“It’s the job of both parents to do that,” Fr. Genio cut in, again, with every word sounding as though he were hammering giant nails in place, “But you must also take care of yourselves as you do it. You cannot sacrifice every single thing in your body and soul for your children. If you do that, then you will spoil your child, make him think that he alone is worth all sacrifices and that he has no role in his own growth. Your purpose is to make your child grow by giving him the tools to grow, not by over-nourishing him at your own behest.”
“The sun loses none of its brightness when it gives us life,” came a soft, gentle voice, this time from Fr. Levi, who had cut off his conversation with Johanna and faced the table once again, “So too, should you not burn yourself to death if you must brighten the lives of your children.”
“And you must not endanger yourselves spiritually and emotionally, or your son will pay the price as well,” Fr. Genio added, syllables pounding into the table.
Mrs. Castroverde nodded as she rocked Matteo, who, for his part, was already asleep. Mr. Castroverde looked as though he had been forced to hear a sermon in a dingy, dilapidated church, in a whole other religious denomination to which he struggled to subscribe.
The interview continued, this time with questions on the boy’s schooling. Where would he go? Would he have time to visit with the priests so that they would train him, counsel him, raise him in the faith, give him the tools so that he could understand his gift in its proper context? Would the parents consider their school, the university, when the time came? The Jesuits could put in a good word for the child, if it came to that; and they could give him a scholarship as long as he maintained good grades.
“We’ll give you time to think about this,” Fr. Genio said, this time gentler, for though Mr. Castroverde had been reticent earlier, the man was nodding his head now that school was being mentioned, “It is still a long time away, and we shouldn’t impose on your son – not until we determine what exactly he sees and if the gift is permanent, or at least there.”
“But I will give you advice,” was the sentence that traveled and grew louder, this time from the corner of the room, as Fr. Exo returned to the table with Dr. Santos, “Do not talk to your friends about your son’s…let’s say, condition. Do not mention it or allude to it. If your son must be the center of attention at one point, then let him be there because he has said his first complete sentence, or he has a good score on an exam, or he has sung a song well. But do not let him stay in the spotlight for too long. This is advice for any child, mind you, because you want your child to do good things without expecting applause at every turn.”
“But it is also most pertinent to Matteo,” Fr. Jun said as he poured a glass of water for Fr. Exo, then Dr. Santos, “Because you do not want him to be defined by his gifts alone. He has to feel as normal as possible, and he also has to be someone who wants to help with his gift, rather than simply show it off.”
“We speak so solemnly, as though we had children of our own,” Fr. Genio smiled, and, perhaps predictably, Mr. Castroverde chuckled, “But we do raise young men, in a manner of speaking. We see what kind of parents breed what kind of children, and we hope you shall take our advice to heart.”
“I almost forgot,” Fr. Exo raised his hand, as though reciting at his own class, “We will not let word of this get out, but you, too, must protect your son, especially from the government – oh, and especially from this government!”
“Oh, my goodness, these New Yorkers and their paranoia,” Fr. Romy shook his head.
“It is not paranoia when you know that Russia has its missiles trained on you,” Fr. Exo retorted, “And more to the point – not this government, especially when you read the newspapers over here.”
“I agree with you,” Fr. Jun sighed, smile faint, “And we don’t even have to read the newspapers. We just have to listen to how our students talk about the president.”
“The First Lady,” Fr. Exo put in, with force, as though he were correcting Fr. Jun’s rejoinder, “That woman in the palace with her jewelry and clothes – she reminds me of Eva Peron.”
“Too many parallels,” Dr. Santos added, with a grin that showed how much he relished the gossip, “There’s talk of jewelry purchases, apartments abroad, and offshore bank accounts.”
The priests gasped, shook their collective heads, and hummed low. Even Fr. Levi, who had hitherto been talking to Johanna about catechism classes, joined in with his own, “I heard about that! The students have been talking!”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the rumors are true,” Fr. Genio was grave, but he did turn, and soberly, to Mr. Castroverde, “I hope you do not mind conversations like this. The priests all want to safeguard our students and their welfare, but we also want them to build a good country. There is much happening now that does not speak well of this government.”
“And I do not wish to make conclusions too readily, but ever since the elections, we’ve been getting more cases,” Fr. Jun watched the sleeping Matteo, with a look that was both scrutinizing and pitying, “The little one sleeps the sleep of the innocent, and I am glad that he has his peace now. I have little doubt that the things he sees are manifestations of the evils that this country is facing.”
“Hoy, Numeriano,” Fr. Romy nudged the man, “Be very careful with all your speculations.”
“Says the man who fled Italy when he heard babies crying.”
“Nevertheless, we do not want to assume that there is evil when there might be none.”
“Better than to assume that there is no evil when there is much beneath the surface,” Fr. Jun retorted.
“You must pardon us, Mr. Castroverde,” Fr. Genio spoke, deep, with a voice that silenced what might have been a coming debate between the two priests, “We Jesuits love our arguments, so we are not sure how you might take them.”
“I am used to lawyers,” Mr. Castroverde smiled, and he appeared more at ease than he did earlier, when he had to contend with priests who seemed bent on wrangling a confession out of him, “But – I suppose I must be truthful when I say this: I am not comfortable with speaking against my own government, especially when it seems to be doing so much in helping its people.”
“I agree,” Fr. Exo responded nearly immediately, hands folded in front of him, as though he were ready to carry out an oral examination, “Let us perhaps wait for this government to indeed show that it is the taxpayers’ money that is being used to fund all these projects. I might be American, but I wish the best for this country that I have called my home for many years now.”
“I am sure that they are – doing the right thing,” Mr. Castroverde responded, though his voice faltered, “And they have the best interests of the people at heart.”
The silence that fell scattered the conversations thereafter: Fr. Levi resumed his little lecture on the nature of the angels with the still rapt Johanna, Fr. Romy and Fr. Jun exchanged observations of how their students talked about the government, Fr. Exo and Dr. Santos talked about the priest’s diet, and Fr. Genio asked the Castroverdes to talk about what their plans were for the coming week. Soon, the back-and-forth directions of words grew more distant, until there was an unspoken resolution that the day’s tasks were done, and that the family should be sent home while its youngest member was fast asleep.
The goodbyes were warm, in general. Fr. Levi gave Johanna a scapular, and draped it around her neck along with a blessing on the child (and a reminder not to talk too freely of her brother, as well as to talk to him and read to him constantly). Fr. Genio laid a hand on the sleeping baby’s head, pronounced a few words of prayer and blessing, and spoke to the air, calling on the child’s guardian angel to continue watching Matteo with eyes sharp, blade ready.
Mr. Castroverde was quiet: he stood to one side, holding his daughter by the hand even as she continued to talk to Fr. Levi. The father constantly tugged on her hold on him, whenever she asked the priest a question, or when she skipped happily when she understood his answer; the actions became so noticeable, Fr. Levi finally took the initiative to scowl at the man, which prompted a cold glare in reply.
The ride home, therefore, and the week that followed, hung on a thread of tension so thin, to break it would risk unleashing a rage understated but acrid. Mother and daughter were one in their assessment: yes, they should let the priests talk to Matteo, maybe one or two Saturdays every month; Mrs. Castroverde would hire a nanny, so that she could have fewer chores, go to work, and still have time to be with the baby; Johanna would be in charge of reading stories to Matteo whenever she could, and she would write him stories and keep a diary of what he said so that the priests were kept abreast of his daily situation, and when he was older she would read the newspaper to him so that she would tell him all about the world –
That was when a fork and spoon clattered noisily onto a ceramic plate.
The family was at dinner then, three days after the meeting with the priests. Matteo was on his mother’s lap. The child gasped at the sound, curled his little fists up, and promptly bawled.
Mr. Castroverde had hardly ever lost his temper hitherto; when he did scold his daughter, it was in a tone low and firm, so that only she could hear him. And when he was exasperated with his wife, he simply withdrew into silence. The clattering was an outburst.
“I have been quiet for too long,” he began, elbows on the table, forehead resting on his folded hands, eyes to his plate of half-eaten porkchops. His voice rode on waves that sounded as though they were both fire and tears. Johanna appeared defiant at first, after the sound of metal against rock made her little brother cry; but when her father spoke, the tears welled in her eyes, and she listened.
“I do not think this is a good idea,” even in his insistence, Mr. Castroverde seemed to hold so much back, including speaking his mind swiftly, “We aren’t sure that Matteo will have these visions his entire life. And they’re filling her head with – with – things!”
Mr. Castroverde gestured toward Johanna, who by then had already dropped her own fork and spoon and begun wiping her tears away with the back of her hand.
“They are giving her all these modern, these improper notions,” Mr. Castroverde went on, still gesticulating, still facing his wife, but never looking at his now sobbing daughter, “They are priests. They have never raised children, and they do not know what it is like to even have a family! They even talk about overthrowing the government!”
“What?” Mrs. Castroverde had been gentle since the initial explosion, but at that very moment, she turned sharply to her husband, eyes wide. Matteo had been crying; he seemed stunned, and he whimpered as he watched his father, as though he, too, were waiting for the answer to his mother’s question.
“They complain about the government!” Mr. Castroverde insisted, hands flailing, as though he were trying to split reality so that he could go back in time and drill the memories into his wife, “They talk about how the president and his family are corrupt, about offshore bank accounts – but this country is getting better! We have more infrastructure now, more than we’ve ever had!”
Mrs. Castroverde still stared at her husband, wordless.
“Don’t you get it?” Mr. Castroverde continued, palms up, as though he were presenting a plate of facts to a wife whom he assumed had gone blind, “They’re the kind of priests that don’t listen to the church. They don’t listen to authority. And they teach children how to rebel! And mothers taught to give up their family – to a nanny?”
“So I should work myself to death – is that what you want?” Mrs. Castroverde finally said.
The silence that fell upon the table could well have flattened the house to its foundations.
“And you think that hiring a nanny is like giving children away – is that what you think caring for children means?” Mrs. Castroverde went on. She might have seemed meek, but her tone – so level, so calm – froze her husband in place.
“But –” he attempted.
“What I don’t get is how the priests are overthrowing the government,” she interrupted him, glare boring fire through the air. “All they’re saying is that there might be corruption. I didn’t hear anything about them wanting to throw the president out and put in a new one. Now that would be overthrowing.”
“But they’re complaining!”
“You sometimes complain about dinner. Are you overthrowing me as the cook?”
Mr. Castroverde looked both ashamed and stupefied. He mumbled something, about how the food was good, how he wasn’t really complaining, how it was so seldom that he ever did complain, and if he did complain then the food did become really good after, and that the priests talked about educating women at a university.
“I also don’t see how that’s wrong,” Mrs. Castroverde’s syllables broke, as though she were watering the spaces in her words with thick, viscous tears, “I wanted to go to college. I had good grades in high school. I could have studied so that I could have a full-time job, just like you. But I gave that up for a family. I don’t want Johanna to have to do that one day. She should be able to choose a job she wants, a career she wants, something that she’s good at, not something she’s forced to be.”
There was only more mumbling by Mr. Castroverde, punctuated by grunts, as though he didn’t know how to end his sentences. There was something about how he had promised that Mrs. Castroverde wouldn’t have to work, because he wanted her to be a good mom (and she was a good cook, really), and why was it so wrong for women to want to be mothers? Why would they need to have so much education when there were perfectly happy wives who would give their parents grandchildren? And why fill up perfectly good minds with liberal ideas?
“I fail to see how they’re liberal,” Mrs. Castroverde went on, voice rising a pitch, but not increasing in force, which made the baby on her lap coo, then look at her with brows furrowed and lips pursed, “The priests talked about helping our son, and Fr. Levi talked to Johanna about the catechism she learned in school. Did he ever tell you that your teachers were wrong about anything, Johanna?”
“No, mama,” Johanna sputtered out.
“What did you and Fr. Levi talk about?”
“We talked about the books I read for English class, and writing, and he talked about the bible and what the stories mean, and who the angels are, and what Italy was like before the war.”
At that last sentence, the sobbing and tears were too great for Johanna’s little body. She sprang out of her chair, ran to her mother, and buried herself in her mother’s arms. Matteo seemed to love the circle of affection in which he found himself: he went quiet, snuggled into what space remained of his mother’s grasp, and nuzzled her neck. He murmured something that sounded like “mama” or “angel”, or a combination of both, but it was loud enough to silence the room.
And there was Mr. Castroverde again, a pillar apart from his family, a guardian watching the affection from the sidelines. He nearly made to stand up and leave his plate half-empty, but he thought better (and knew better): he sat down, finished his meal in silence, then drank water and stared straight before him while his wife and children embraced each other. Mrs. Castroverde had shed only a few thin tears; she was more focused, it seemed, on making sure that Matteo was calm, and that Johanna felt the sincerity of her dreams as a mother.
There had hardly ever been talk about who the Castroverdes had once been, before they had married. Johanna caught snatches of it, in how her mother encouraged her to study and write, often with the assurance that there would be more jobs for women in the future, more opportunities for little girls to study, far fewer wars that would interrupt school or flatten cities or ruin whole generations. Matteo, later, would hear his father moan about how the good old days had gone, when life was simpler and far more predictable; this would almost immediately be followed by his mother retorting about how fleeing from the Japanese was hardly ever simple, let alone predictable, and how the good old days were stifling and suffocating, especially for women who had been told by their teachers that they would have made good mathematicians or writers or scientists, but who had to set those dreams aside because the country needed to rebuild, and more families were needed –
And then there would be grumbling from Mr. Castroverde, and scoffing from Mrs. Castroverde, and then there would be sentences mumbled or grunted. That, of course, is getting far ahead of the story, but that evening exemplified what would be constant exchanges between a father who wanted to believe in the rosiness of a past that no longer existed, and a mother who wished for a future where she could live vicariously through her children.
On that evening, at dinner, there was silence. Matteo had fallen asleep. Johanna still held her mother, and Mrs. Castroverde was caressing her daughter’s hair. Outside, there were jeepneys plying the roads with engines that sounded like rumbling volcanoes. In the house, there were lizards who chirped as they scurried across walls, tut-tutted as they raced after mosquitoes and flies. And, at the table, Mr. Castroverde was quiet – but at length, he cleared his throat.
“I will call the province tomorrow,” he began, tone slightly flustered, as though he wished to please his wife but not show that he had been so affected by her anger, “Maybe someone in the family can recommend a nanny for Matteo.”
Mrs. Castroverde nodded. She smiled, but only slightly, without looking at him.
“I am just – scared,” Mr. Castroverde seemed so afraid to even mouth the words, that he had to punctuate his sentence with a long draught of water, “I don’t know what this gift means for him, or how the priests will help him, but – but all right. Let’s let them help him.”
Again, Mrs. Castroverde nodded, though she still did not move from her place, and continued to watch the table with the air of a wife who was waiting for her husband to fully come to his senses.
“Now as for you, Johanna Castroverde,” the father sounded both affectionate and remonstrating, and whatever tone it was he was supposed to take, it made his daughter look up from her mother’s embrace, “I will allow you to get lessons and talk to the priests as well, but you have to keep your grades high. If they fall even just once, I will not let you talk to them ever again.”
The threat sounded ominous, but to Johanna – she who found excitement at every turn, who took delight in helping her little brother, who loved to listen to stories – the admonition was equal to a blessing for her to proceed as she pleased. She wriggled herself out of her mother’s arms, ran to her father, threw her arms around his neck, and spoke a low “Thank you” to his cheek. His only response was to pat her on the head, and to grunt, as was his wont, that she should finish her dinner.
Johanna was obedient, even as she was brash by nature. She kept her grades up; they were even higher, in fact, than before she met Fr. Levi. She sat in on Matteo’s lessons, studied whenever it was Fr. Levi’s turn to tutor her brother, wrote stories for the baby, read them to him constantly. And she escaped, into the worlds of her imagination. She listened closely as each priest told his story: Fr. Genio would talk about Spain and his adventures in the hills of Montserrat, Fr. Exo would talk about New York museums and Broadway shows, Fr. Romy would talk about his school in Rome, Fr. Jun would talk about his adventures in different places in the Philippines (and which places had the best sweet spaghetti), and Fr. Levi would talk about the many worlds that writing could take her in her imagination.
She took notes as the priests often lapsed into impromptu lectures that made her high school classroom look like a mere cage of parrots: Fr. Genio would talk about the cultures of food in Spain, Fr. Exo would talk about Jesus’ miracles, Fr. Romy would talk about that week’s Gospel, Fr. Jun would talk about the cultural differences across islands in the Philippines, and Fr. Levi would talk about poetry.
The Saturday sessions were a distraction, besides, from the brewing unrest of the world without, where a president and his cronies were spreading their tentacles across the country. Johanna was starting high school when the protests began, in the middle of her English literature readings when Martial Law was declared, on the cusp of graduation when whispers began of more protests, of students quitting school to overthrow the government, of young men and women who were taking to the mountains for armed rebellion.
Johanna, however, loved scholarship. She learned, soaked up the knowledge, grew stronger. She began as a writer for her little brother; as she grew older, she read out the newspapers to him, as she had promised the priests. She read with fervor, with excitement, with anger in the lilts and drops of her voice as she traced the stories of cronies gone mad with greed, protests bloody with screams, politicians greedy and statesmen speaking out with rage bright for a country suffering. Her father grumbled and her mother was uneasy, but she read to Matteo; and when he was older and could read the papers himself, she asked him questions and tried to engage him in a discussion as spirited as that which she could conduct with the Jesuits.
Johanna became valedictorian of both her grade school and high school class, and, years later, became part of the very first batch of women admitted to the university that the Jesuits had founded – a university in whose streets she had first seen knowledge, and whose education she had only dreamed about as a child. Johanna had kept her promise to her father, even as he admonished her (though with increasing weakness) on being over-educated, over-knowledgeable, over-wise.
“Adding an ‘over’ only shows how scared he is,” Mrs. Castroverde would immediately put in, so that Mr. Castroverde’s grumbling would recommence.
Perhaps the “over” should have been a warning; and yet any caution would have been unfair, for the “over” was to speak truth to the power that Johanna could have held, had she been allowed.
And yet this is too mild a description of what had occurred, in those years that followed the resolution at dinner, and that led up to Johanna’s role in Matteo’s vocation. To understand the family’s story, we must return to Matteo’s journey with the Jesuits.