To simply speak of Matteo as a student of the Jesuits is to reduce his young life to mere shelter, absent learning. The school was a bubble, his guardian angel was a veil, and beyond all these layers of protection was danger – and that same danger made itself known in the many creatures that often pierced through the child’s defenses, broke through the child’s barricades, and fought against his guardian.
There were the elves and fairies and dwarves of his childhood, but they paled in comparison to the demons that grew in both ferocity and viciousness as he turned much older. They came in groups of cackling beasts as the 1960s wound to a close, paused at the end of the decade when the Pope visited the country, crawled out in droves with claws sharp and tails wagging in the air when the president declared Martial Law in late 1972.
And Matteo saw them everywhere, with increasing vagueness as he began to speak of his visions; but with a stronger pull in his gut, as though the languages shared by the angels thundered through the universe at a pitch unknown to man, but resonating in the flesh made by his Creator.
There were three principal persons who formed the path that Matteo took to the priesthood.
The first was his nanny: Yaya Yaya was his constant companion when his parents worked and his Ate Johanna had to go to school (her real name was Maria, but the baby Matteo could not pronounce it clearly). Yaya was a distant, orphaned relative from an island province, and she came from a village where the elders went to church on Sundays, but also gave food offerings to elves and fairies when the weather turned sour, or the harvest turned brown.
“Baby angel,” Matteo had pronounced, the moment Yaya had stepped into their house, “Angel is so sleepy, mama.”
She was made privy almost immediately to Matteo’s gifts, and sworn to secrecy. Her very first meeting with the Jesuits had completely sealed her beliefs: she never engaged in offerings to fairies or elves ever again, went with the family to Mass with far more urgency and alarm than anyone in the household, and prayed the most feverishly for Matteo whenever he had the slightest of discomforts. Whenever she went home for a vacation, she would take notes and books with her, and even call Mrs. Castroverde long distance to ask for help in convincing this or that elder relative to abandon their rituals and rites.
Yaya had also arrived at the Castroverde household as an eighteen-year-old with barely enough capacity to read or write. Johanna volunteered to teach her; in exchange, the young Johanna received enough stories and superstitions to write her own book. The stories were not merely words to paper; Fr. Romy encouraged the little girl to read them to Marco, and to refine them with Fr. Levi’s help, for Johanna truly was gifted.
“Don’t stop Johanna, please,” Fr. Romy reminded the family one Sunday; or, to be more precise, reminded Mr. Castroverde, for the man’s eyebrows had already knotted themselves close enough to create a permanent tapestry on his brow, “Matteo needs to have a vocabulary that will help him understand what he sees, that will help give him a voice so that he can describe rather than be overwhelmed.”
Mr. Castroverde grumbled, with an indecipherable gesture of his hand toward Johanna, who was scribbling notes while talking to Fr. Levi.
“And please don’t stop Ms. Yaya,” Fr. Romy went on, “Let her tell these stories. They can be a warning for Matteo not to overstep his bounds, and they should be a warning for him to heed early. Don’t entertain any kind of relationship with the creatures, or give any kind of gifts, or talk to them or even ask for their permission to do things. They are not your allies, and they are certainly not your friends. Matteo has to know all of this early, and he has to recognize that his gift can attract all sorts of creatures: the good, the bad, and the deceptively kind.”
“Oh, my God, yes Father, yes Father,” Yaya replied quickly, crossing herself three times, as though she had confessed her sins and would confess even more given the slightest provocation, “I promise to help Matteo! And I promise to help you!”
Yaya was earnest and devoted, and she was instrumental, truth be told, in keeping the boy a secret from the non-exorcist priests. She placed herself in charge of housekeeping, which primarily consisted of cooking for the exorcists and the family, and going to and from the hall and other kitchens in the House of the Jesuits. Whenever anyone asked her what she was doing and who she worked for, she would simply say that Fr. Genio and the priests had an important meeting for their group, had important work to do, and needed her to cook for them.
Yaya also had a peculiar ability to go about undetected; she was rather plain, of no remarkable appearance, with an ordinary speaking voice and an often mousy face that shrank behind the bold Johanna (ten years her junior, and yet seemingly decades louder). And when she answered questions about the priests, her reply always sounded unemotional, routine, as though she had been working in the House of the Jesuits all her life, as though there were always meetings and she had no other mission but to keep priests well fed, as though she had simply sprouted out of the ground and carried pots and pans from one side of the building to another. She spoke to no one, made friends with no one, and simply did her work.
Yaya’s peculiar ability also seemed to spread to those around her, as though she, too, were a guardian angel with her own veil who could shield her adopted family. The Castroverdes walked often through the halls of the House of the Jesuits, and yet no one questioned their presence. And they did so, twice a month, for close to two decades, at a day and time when the Jesuits were least occupied with their work and could have easily spotted outsiders in their midst.
The protection could partly be explained by what Matteo called a baby, sleeping angel. Yaya’s guardian was as typical in its species as she was ordinary: it was the kind of timeless, ageless angel that had been assigned to any soul, the kind that had always been tasked to sit by a cradle for generation upon generation of humanity. It was an angel practiced in the arts of being common, silent, hardworking, unassuming; and it worked well with the guardians of the rest of the family, all of whom were seemingly higher ranked in the celestial hierarchy and often had to fight battles while watching their wards.
“He is a very tired angel, Yaya,” Matteo said, a few years after Yaya had first entered their house, “It’s like he’s old but he’s young, and he knows what he is doing so well, and he knows you very well, he says, and he loves you very much.”
Yaya promptly burst into tears (of joy, naturally), as Matteo had spoken the words oh-so-nonchalantly while they walked to his first kindergarten class. It was the only time Matteo had seen the angel clearly; after that, the guardian was simply a flash of white, one that hardly ever participated in the battles, and was in the farthest lines if ever it did. And yet there was a nobility about it, a wealth of experience, that when it spoke, it did not pull on Matteo’s gut, but seemed to hum prayers through his bones.
The protection could also have been partly ascribed to the fact that any mention of an exorcists’ meeting (or simply Fr. Genio’s name) was enough to stop the rest of the Jesuits from asking questions. On ordinary days, Fr. Levi told the Castroverdes, thoughts of exorcism, the devil, and angels would make the younger priests smile in bewilderment, stifle their laughs, or simply change the subject. There was decreasing interest in the ministry, and increasing interest in some form of rationality that saw symbols in the stories, that spoke of sin as material rather than caused by some puppet-master whose claws and cloven hooves crackled and cawed in the darkness.
“If they think that the devil is a mere figment of one’s imagination, then think how they’d regard Matteo,” Fr. Romy mused, during one of the family’s first meetings in the House of the Jesuits, “They would never take him seriously, not at this time when some of the teachers here teach students to move faster and farther away from frightening topics – as though avoiding the devil would obliterate his existence!”
Indeed, it was the passionate, meticulous Fr. Romy who watched Matteo the closest, and who had allowed the boy to grow into his gifts. As a baby, Matteo was read to, spoken to, asked, drawn into conversations – he was treated as though he were a full-grown child who had simply taken on the body of a baby.
He was encouraged to speak of what he saw, and to describe everything – but his family was also given a long checklist of situations to avoid, or Matteo would be overwhelmed and would not have the emotional or mental capacity to deal with what he saw. No protest rallies of any sort, whether the participants sided with or opposed the government. No back alleys, no isolated places, no wooded areas, no prisons, no mental institutions. Yes to church, and yes to Sunday mass – but no supposed locations of spiritual or mystical activity.
“But what if we want to take him to Lipa? Or to Manaoag?” Mrs. Castroverde asked, saddened, for she had visited the apparition sites before she was married, and had ascribed many miracles in her own life to her visits there.
“Only when he is older,” Fr. Romy sighed, “These places might be blessed and guarded by angels, but they also attract demons that want to break any defenses down – the battles are great in these places. Do not be shocked, ma’am, but I’ve had quite a number of cases in Lipa.”
Mrs. Castroverde gasped; Mr. Castroverde grunted, but paled.
“I’ve been studying Lipa for years, and I’m part of the research team that reports to the Vatican. My cases there are now rising – and they are starting to become… violent,” Fr. Romy’s words felt tentative, as though he had chosen his descriptions carefully, and was holding so much back to keep the family from running away, “Our Lady always comes to my aid, of course; but the victims also have to be strong. They are also soldiers in the battle. They need to have the strength, the willingness to accept God. They need to be afraid that any weakness on their part later will invite even more demons. How can we do that when even mentioning Satan is looked upon as a joke?”
Mr. Castroverde patted Matteo on the head, for the little boy was looking at him, and was pointing at his shoulder.
“Angel hugging you,” the baby said.
Again, Mr. Castroverde grunted, but his smile was so wide, it made Matteo giggle. The sound was welcome in the somber air of the dining hall. It was late afternoon: Fr. Levi and Johanna were in the garden talking about how she would take notes on what Matteo said, Fr. Genio and Fr. Jun were in the kitchen preparing roast pork and noodles, and Fr. Exo was washing the dishes but opening and closing cupboards constantly. The sounds were a rhythm that would form the backdrop of many a meeting at the House: the questions from Johanna became a melody whose tone deepened as the years went by, the ramblings and rumblings in the kitchen became bass notes or metallic trebles that came at irregular intervals but never jarred the guests, even the coming and going of Yaya much later became as a quick stroke of a violin to lend another note to the music.
On that afternoon, Matteo the toddler was giggling, and reaching out in ever so many directions, as though taking the hands of his friends.
“So when can we take him to Lipa, or Manaoag?” Mrs. Castroverde asked, as her husband took Matteo, and as Matteo reached over his father’s shoulder, as though to join in the embrace that the angel had made, “I would like my children to visit them one day. I thought that a visit would strengthen Matteo.”
“I agree,” Fr. Romy conceded, syllables stumbling out slowly, “But we need to wait until he is much older. A visit now, when he cannot describe what he sees – and when everything looks very vivid and clear to him – a visit might overwhelm him, and he might do as he once did. He will cry, and it will be difficult to calm him; at worst, he might call attention to you, to himself.”
“When will we know that he can already visit?” Mrs. Castroverde asked.
Fr. Romy sighed, “I really don’t know – we first have to see how his gift changes, and how it changes things, and then we’ll find out.”
For the next sixteen years, Fr. Romy became both observer and guide: he watched Matteo, took notes, interviewed Johanna and Yaya, sat in conference with the Castroverde couple, spoke constantly to the child, listened to the boy’s answers to his questions, analyzed the descriptions as Matteo made them.
The baby Matteo giggled at the sight of angels: he would reach for them, seemingly ask to be carried, apparently play with what appeared to be shining toys that lingered in the air and disappeared into his closed fists. But on occasion, there would be stray demons from the priests’ cases: the demons who spoke languages to taunt Fr. Genio, the demons who hurt the children under Fr. Levi’s care, the demons who liked fomenting wars among the victims to whom Fr. Jun ministered, the demons who posed as so-called harmless elementals that wrecked Fr. Exo’s heart, and the demons sore from their lost battles in Lipa that often kept Fr. Romy awake at night with nightmares of hell.
Fr. Romy never spoke of the nightmares; he tended to ignore them, and it was how he taught Matteo to behave when demons came.
“Look at mama, Matteo,” he said to the baby, when a demon came traipsing in, turning the summery room into winter just as the priests and the family were about to start eating, “Look at your mother, and don’t be afraid. Your mama loves you very much, and her love will keep you safe. Look at her, and we will all pray for you.”
Mrs. Castroverde simply met her son’s eyes, and felt the tears fall from hers as the boy took his cheeks in both his tiny hands and obeyed Fr. Romy’s orders.
“Look at that statue of Mama Mary, Matteo,” Fr. Romy said, this time to the toddler Matteo, who was walking in the garden with Yaya, but stopped suddenly at the corner, “That is the mother of the baby Jesus, and she will protect you. What is her name again? What is the name of the mother of the baby Jesus?”
Matteo could not even speak. He was barely breathing, as he stared at a corner of the garden, held Yaya’s hand in a trembling fist, wrinkled his little face into a contortion that signaled that he was about to bawl his throat out.
“It’s all right, Matteo,” Fr. Romy spoke, trying to draw the child’s gaze to the other corner of the garden, where the statue was, “Look over there. She’s not very far. That is Jesus’ mother. She loves you, too. She is your mother, too. What is her name, Yaya?”
Fr. Romy had been kneeling before Matteo then, and he looked up at Matteo’s nanny, hoping to find her strong and responsive. Instead, she was paler than her ward, and seemed to be rooted and bound in place, as though invisible strings had sewn her mouth shut and removed all her joints.
“Yaya?” Fr. Romy glared and nodded, glanced at the windows to the dining hall where the priests and the rest of the family were, swallowed hard as he saw them all praying, “Yaya, I need your help.”
Yaya was quiet. Beside her, Matteo’s breathing grew labored, and he was muttering something under his breath that sounded like a mad melding of “mama”, “angel”, and “no”.
“Yaya,” Fr. Romy now spoke between his teeth, and began to pull his red book out of his pocket, “Yaya, we all need to help Matteo now, and anyone who isn’t helping him is helping somebody else.”
“Mama Mary!” the single sentence came out in a shout from the pale Yaya. It echoed across the courtyard, made the people at the windows suddenly look up, silenced low conversations in the hallways of the House of the Jesuits. Even Matteo jumped at the sudden blast of sound.
“So: who is the baby Jesus’ mother, Matteo?” Fr. Romy asked, hand over his mouth.
“Mama,” Matteo spoke both syllables through a sob in his throat, “Mama Mary.”
“Now, ask for her help.”
“Please help me, Mama Mary.”
There was no other word needed; the simple prayer was enough. The courtyard grew warm once again, regained its color, shed its veils of gray and stone, painted the world with grass and flowers. Even the corners, once so dark even in the garish light of the afternoon, seemed illuminated by a rosy-white light. The little boy Matteo, who had been so out-of-breath earlier, was smiling now, pink in the cheeks, wide eyed in his wonder, mouth hanging open as though he were before someone so great and mighty that he lost all powers of speech.
It all happened in but moments, was lost in a blink. Fr. Romy gasped at how Matteo glowed, and, on impulse, turned around to look where the child was staring. It was only human for him to do so: would he have expected to see the Virgin Mary there, or perhaps witness the battles that Matteo faced as a wordless child?
And yet that very action was also the priest’s undoing. Perhaps the Queen of Heaven’s attack was so severe, it incensed all the demons, dulled their claws, and removed their fangs – but they still had the power of the angels, and it was perhaps the work of one demon that sprang out of the retreating horde. The strike pierced through the defenses of the House of the Jesuits and hit Fr. Romy in the gut.
He kept his composure, stumbled back onto his heels, and did his best not to appear as though he had been touched. And yet he could not help his own pallor, for though there was no immediate pain, Fr. Romy felt as though a metal pipe had been rammed into his insides, kept there, and then pounded with a sledgehammer, so that his spine thundered with a smattering of misfiring nerves. He clenched his muscles, but only felt the pain sink into his joints, laughing there, sneering at his injury, as though to taunt him for his hopes.
He prayed to the Virgin Mary, quietly, in his head, not daring to look at the rest of the priests in the dining hall. Fr. Romy already had plans on what notes to put in his notebook, but he felt as though his soul had been shattered, and the mere thought of lifting a pen was enough to make his heart stop.
“Wow,” was all that Matteo said, in the next moment, as he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Fr. Romy’s neck, “So many lights!”
The child’s affection was enough for Fr. Romy to forget how his intestines seemed to be knotted and tied all around the invisible metal pipe. He came back to one knee, and returned the embrace that Matteo gave.
“What did you see, Matteo?” he asked, surprised at how firm his voice still was.
“So many lights!” Matteo repeated, “No more ugly man.”
“That’s good,” Fr. Romy felt his insides untangling, his mind forming words more easily, “Now do you remember what you saw?”
“Lights!” Matteo insisted.
“And did you see a lady?”
“No. So many lights!”
Fr. Romy sighed. He felt that he should be disappointed, but part of him was glad that Matteo had not seen the Virgin Mary. Any such vision would complicate the child’s case – and this was something that the priests agreed with later on, when they met that evening (and with Dr. Santos present to see to the sudden appearance of bruises all over Fr. Romy’s abdomen): it was one thing to see angels and demons, but it was a whole other affair to have mystic visions of the Queen of Heaven after having seen a mixture of angels and demons. The complication was that this was a child who could barely form sentences, let alone describe what he saw. There would be no other recourse but to bring the case to the Vatican, the way that the Lipa case had been (and speaking of which, there was that job to do, and there was so much investigating to do – Fr. Romy realized that he had turned around on impulse because he wished he could ask the Virgin what exactly was happening in Lipa).
“Again, who do we call?” Fr. Romy spoke that afternoon, as the people in the dining hall calmed, and as even Yaya blushed at how loudly she had screamed earlier, “Who do you ask for if you are afraid and see things?”
“Mama Mary,” Matteo smiled widely, “I say Mama Mary please.”
There was no other vision that might have been that of the Virgin Mary. Everything after consisted of the demons visiting, whether it was a group of them playing tricks and breaking imaginary plates, or a single powerful one that froze water at the height of summer. And always, the instructions were the same:
“Do not answer their questions, and do not talk to them. Do not engage. When they talk, do not listen. Pray, ask for help. Ignore them.”
The instructions were given in varying tones, orders, and permutations, and Matteo’s obedience grew as the years passed. He did learn to talk early, and to articulate whether he was coming face to face with angels or demons; and as he aged, so did the visions become less vivid, less overwhelming when the angels were involved, less oppressive when the demons came. Matteo was a four-year old boy who struggled to pay the demons no heed; an eight-year old boy who had to contend with bullies both human and supernatural; and soon, a ten-year old boy who could truly talk, call upon memories, and yet not dwell on what his gift meant for him as a person.
One Saturday afternoon, closer to Christmas, and at the end of Johanna’s first semester at the university, Matteo and Fr. Romy were seated in the dining hall and looking at his drawings. No one could remember why Fr. Exo had brought them out, only that they were there when the family arrived.
“Do you remember seeing any of these, Matteo?” Fr. Romy asked, as he sat across from the boy, “You and Fr. Exo had many long conversations while you drew things. We stopped a few years ago, but I was wondering if you remember drawing these, and if you remember seeing things clearly back then.”
Matteo took a long while to react. He always did, whenever confronted with a question in whose response he saw depth. This sometimes annoyed the quick-thinking Frs. Exo and Levi, who often joked about sending him off to the Dominicans; but it made Fr. Romy proud, and he was far more patient in waiting for an answer than his sprightly brothers were. Matteo had also taken the “slow” label in stride, and, like Fr. Romy, loved it, as though it set him apart from his volatile sister.
“I remember only some of the drawings, Fr. Romy,” Matteo finally answered, laughing at the oldest of the sketches, for there were coffee stains on their edges, “I remember using crayons, and I also remember that Fr. Exo gave me pencils that had different colors. But I don’t remember seeing these things.”
Fr. Romy’s brow creased, “What do you mean?”
Again, Matteo looked at the drawings, thought for a long time, and paid little mind to the noises all around him. Johanna was studying in the corner, his parents were in the courtyard with Fr. Jun, and Yaya was in the kitchen, making pots of stew with Fr. Genio and Fr. Levi. Fr. Exo was the loudest of all: he was chanting something about the Dominicans, all while combing through the cupboards and declaring that they were out of chocolate bars again.
“I remember drawing things, Fr. Romy,” Matteo spoke, then laid the sheets of paper in a pile in the middle of the table, “I remember using my yellow crayons a lot, too. I also remember that we had a black crayon, and I kept using that until I couldn’t use it anymore. So I started using the dark purple crayon, and then the blue crayon, and then the brown crayon. And I remember that we ran out of yellow and orange, so Fr. Exo gave me this bright yellow new thing he got from Germany.”
Fr. Romy chuckled. In his mind’s eye, he could see the little boy before him, half his body sprawled across the table, his fingers stained with a variety of colors. When the highlighters came, they stained even the wood, so that Fr. Exo was put in charge of cleaning up after the Castroverdes had gone home. (The old priest took readily to the task, for it gave him proximity to the kitchen, which meant easier access to the chocolates stored there)
“But that’s all I remember, Fr. Romy,” Matteo resumed, “I don’t remember seeing these things. I just remember drawing them.”
“What about that day when you saw the Virgin Mary? When we were both in the garden?” Fr. Romy pressed (and tested), “Do you remember that?”
“I don’t remember that day, Father, and I’ve never seen Mama Mary,” Matteo shook his head. The speed of his answer made Fr. Romy’s jaw drop, “I just remember that I asked for her, but we didn’t draw anything after that, I think.”
Fr. Romy could not help smiling. He tried to ignore the warmth that he felt in his chest, which blossomed at the youngster’s earnestness, at the child’s candor, at the boy Matteo’s lack of airs for a very precious gift, “You’re right, of course – I think we just talked to your parents to calm them down, because they were quite afraid for you,” then, after a long pause (comfortable, as all pauses were when in Matteo’s presence), “Doesn’t that scare you, Matteo? That you can’t remember what you’ve seen?”
Matteo took a much longer while to think of his answer to the question. In that time, Fr. Exo had gone upstairs to his room, and had returned with a bag of chocolates; Yaya and Fr. Genio had finished chopping vegetables and were boiling piles of bones for broth; Fr. Levi and Johanna were discussing why her writing professor had given her a pitiful C+ on her essay; and Fr. Jun and the Castroverde couple were praying together.
“I’m not really scared, Fr. Romy,” Matteo had been looking at his fingers, and he glanced upward as he spoke, “I think that it’s the same for all the other things I did. I’ve forgotten a lot of things. Maybe I’ll remember them one day.
“But I do remember that my angel looks like gold. And I also remember, sometimes, that she has a lot of circles around her, like she has wheels, or fire? But I can’t remember her face. Even when Ate Johanna tells me that I used to see so many angels around here, all I remember is drawing them, and all I can see right now is lots of light.”
“Does it frighten you, then?” Fr. Romy went on, “That no matter where you look, you can see the angels, and you’re the only one who can see them?”
Again, Matteo took a while to answer. It appeared as though he was bewildered by the line of questioning, for his lower lip pushed upward, making his mouth pucker, and seemingly wrinkling his brow further. While he thought, Fr. Exo had already begun handing out candies to everyone, and pressed a chocolate bar onto Matteo’s palm, “To help the brain speed up above Dominican range.”
“Ay, Exodo,” Fr. Romy groaned, opening his own share of the candy.
“Is Exodo mocking Matteo again?” came from the kitchen, and from Fr. Genio.
“He’s only being funny, Father!” Matteo claimed, biting into the chocolate bar and smiling widely. Fr. Exo simply laughed, patted the child vigorously on the head, and left the table with a loud, “There’s hope for you yet!”
And again, a few more moments of silence ensued, broken only by what sounded like happy chewing on Matteo’s part, as well as some high-pitched whining from Johanna, who understood why her work was substandard but could not easily accept it.
“I am not really scared, Father,” Matteo answered, swallowing the last of the chocolate, “I sometimes feel like there are so many things happening, like I see so many things and I wish they would go slower.”
“Do you mean that you get overwhelmed?” Fr. Romy put in, pushing a glass of water toward Matteo.
Matteo took the glass, but crumpled the chocolate bar wrapper first, walked across the room to drop it in the trash bin, and then walked back to the table. He drank the water as he went, and he moved slowly, as though he were indeed sorting through the mess of his thoughts by literally wading through the morass that they had made.
“Yes, I think that maybe I am overwhelmed, Fr. Romy,” Matteo replied, placing the empty glass on the table first, and then scrambling up to get into the chair, “But I sometimes hear Ate use that word, and she sounds tired. I don’t feel tired. I just want things to go a little slower because all I see are these lights, and I sometimes see shadows, and they’re all just running somewhere, and some of them bump into each other.
“You know, yesterday, I was in the playground with my friends. One of them was talking to me about something that happened at his house, but I couldn’t see him. I was looking in front of me, and I kept seeing lots of light and then these dark things, and I was trying to listen to him but I couldn’t. I just knew he was very mad at his mother because she wasn’t always home. He said she liked to go to parties but she didn’t bring him with her.
“I wanted to tell him not to be so mad, but I couldn’t because it was like there was so much in front of my face, so many things happening. My guardian angel helped but I also wanted to see if there was something happening to my friend, so I just kept looking.”
It was the longest that Matteo had spoken that day. He appeared more embarrassed than exhausted; he even reddened, because he finally saw Fr. Exo listening to him from the kitchen, with the look of someone both impressed and bemused at the sudden change in a dear, hitherto quiet friend.
Fr. Romy sighed, “I understand, Matteo, but be very careful,” his voice was forceful, and yet loud enough so that Fr. Exo could hear, agree, and nod, “Don’t just spy on your friends, because you might end up not listening to what they have to say. Let them tell their story.”
“I did, Fr. Romy,” Matteo insisted, with far greater speed than usual, “But I just couldn’t see him, and it was so hard to listen, so I thought that maybe God was telling me to look at the angels instead.”
The priest opened his mouth, about to make a correction; then, closed it, and narrowed his gaze at the boy, as though an idea had come to him mid-breath.
“Do you want to learn how to control when the visions come, Matteo?” he began, “Some people learn how to do it intuitively. But maybe your gift is different, so we’ll need to really work on controlling it, so that you don’t always see things.”
“That would be nice, Fr. Romy,” Matteo’s voice was both uneasy and polite, as though he had been taught to respond in a specific way to an offer of help, “But can I do it? I thought that this was a gift from God, and if God says that I have to have it, then I shouldn’t correct Him.”
Fr. Romy could not help laughing (and apparently, neither could the pleased and amused – and hungry – Fr. Exo, who ate yet another chocolate bar as he watched the pair from the kitchen doorway).
“You aren’t correcting Him – if anything, you’re asking for God’s help even more closely,” Fr. Romy assured him; then gave a nod to Fr. Levi, who was asking for permission for Johanna to join them at the table, “Will you be ok with learning how to control your gift right now? Your Ate is here if you need help.”
“Your Ate also has no brain left,” Johanna declared, with a grin at Fr. Levi, who rolled his eyes at the girl, “But she’ll protect you in whatever way she can.”
Behind her, the group of Fr. Jun and her parents was in another round of prayer. Fr. Romy guessed (and perhaps correctly) that the father had spoken of his misgivings for Johanna’s entry into the university. Fr. Levi had always been fond of Johanna, and had always been her champion; but even he was worried about how her writing and voice were gaining ground, getting louder, courting attention from possibly the wrong places. It was not that the Jesuits were not opposed to the government; quite the opposite. They were afraid for the Castroverde family, which had a recently possessed father, a son still finding his grip on his gift, and now, a daughter that was speaking out through her writing.
“A dismal C+ because she has a voice but her arguments are all over the place,” Fr. Levi remarked that night, “Truth be told, I hope her arguments are all over the place, because I want that poor girl to be alive for decades!”
The poor girl was also a student in a university whose alumni had since been found dead, riddled with bullet wounds, tortured, maimed, bones broken.
It was a time of Martial Law, and the bold Johanna was bolder still to offer Matteo her protection.
On that afternoon, with the sky turning a deep orange, and the trees rustling in the dusk outside, there were walls holding voices in, and angels seemingly guarding the party in the dining hall. Johanna held Matteo’s hand (he looked quite embarrassed, but he nevertheless squeezed her fingers), smiled at him, and smiled even wider at Fr. Romy.
“And now Matteo’s boss has given us the definitive go-signal,” Fr. Romy declared, coughing loudly to hide Fr. Exo’s rather loud, “Make Johanna a Jesuit!” from the kitchen, “Are you ready, Matteo? I need you to relax.”
It would be a set of instructions oft-repeated later, for Matteo had to fashion his own brand of listening and focus. On that afternoon, Fr. Romy asked the boy to breathe slowly, to count to five as he inhaled, count to five as he exhaled, to heed only the priest’s voice. The serenity was in stark contrast, as usual, to Johanna’s feverish bursts of energy that characterized her resting state; to hold down her movements was an effort, and silence on her part was tension. To keep Matteo’s hand in hers, therefore, and to say nothing, was almost unbearable.
Matteo stifled what should have been a loud giggle. “I can see your guardian angel,” he tugged on his sister’s hand, “He’s laughing!”
Johanna used to ask Matteo hundreds of questions about her guardian angel, even when Matteo could barely speak and could only look at Johanna and point at her shoulder. When he was older, he spoke a single sentence that sobered the girl: “He says: Ask good questions but don’t ask often.” Johanna, therefore, took to simply waiting for her angel to make itself known; and then reveled in the angel’s happiness with her whenever Matteo had the chance to talk more.
On that afternoon, she had to keep herself from laughing too hard. The mental image of a dismayed but nevertheless amused guardian angel was much too difficult to keep to herself.
“All right, children,” Fr. Romy’s drone made Johanna clear her throat loudly, which likewise made Matteo purse his lips, as though to pin any further laughter down, “Matteo, I need you to listen to me now. The instructions are going to be difficult to follow at the start, all right? This is going to take a lot of practice, so I need Johanna to listen, too. I know you’re busy, Johanna, but if Matteo needs to keep himself from getting overwhelmed by the visions, then you need to help him.”
Johanna nodded, smile as wide and bright as when she was but an eight-year-old girl insisting on her role as her brother’s protector.
“Johanna Castroverde, S.J.,” Fr. Exo’s voice could no longer be drowned out, and he received a nudge from Fr. Levi, who was also standing in the kitchen doorway (and who quickly exchanged a high five with his colleague).
“Your guardian angels will break this building down at the rate you’re going,” was Fr. Genio’s muse from the kitchen.
Had it been any other day, Fr. Romy would have halted the exercise entirely, and then scolded the rest of the priests later. He could not help smiling however, and watching Matteo: despite the laughter from the priests, the coming giggle from Johanna, the low exchange of jests between Fr. Exo and Fr. Levi – despite what should have been a descent into chaos, Matteo remained quiet, peaceful, and listening.
There also seemed to be a light shielding him, as though there were a veil drawn between the child and reality, and by a guardian angel whose golden raiment marked her path as a chariot across the heavens.
Fr. Romy breathed, at the same rate as Matteo, nodded ever-so-slightly; then smiled.
“I prayed to my guardian angel, Matteo,” the priest spoke, voice steady, so that it trilled through the room and even silenced the chuckling from the kitchen doorway, “I asked my angel to tell your angel to help you. I now need you to talk to your angel, but you will talk to her in a very different way.”
The Castroverde couple, who had been at the other end of the room the entire time, were suddenly quiet. Fr. Jun turned to the table; Fr. Genio stopped working on the stew and joined the pair of Frs. Levi and Exo in the kitchen doorway. Even Johanna had lost her tendency to chatter.
And yet Matteo remained still, at peace, a long note of a violin still playing in an orchestra whose cacophonies had dwindled into silence.
“I need you to talk to your guardian angel, but in your heart,” Fr. Romy went on, “Do not use words. You do not want to suddenly call her by her name, or act as though you are summoning her. You do not have power over her. She is not yours to command. She is your guide, and her language transcends the boundaries of space and time. So, send her images. Try to imagine that you are in a place that is familiar, that is happy to you, because that is where she will also be happy.
“And don’t hurry. Don’t rush there to that happy place only because I told you so. I want you to slowly go there, to slowly imagine it, to slowly build it so that you can see it so vividly, and so that you know that this is where you and your guardian angel can talk, and where she can keep you protected.”
Fr. Romy paused, reveled, for a moment, in the sight that was the ten-year old Matteo. The child had grown up in the House of the Jesuits, and yet he seemingly had not aged. There was a hint of a baby in him: a bit of fat still in his cheeks, a little smile playing on the edges of his lips, even stubbornly tight curls on his dark head. But there, too, was a timelessness, as though he had been speaking with his angel since the beginning of time, and simply needed instructions to remind him of how his angel and he worked together.
“Breathe through this, Matteo,” Fr. Romy spoke once again, “I need you to breathe, and learn how to calm yourself, because what we are about to do will take quite a lot of energy out of you, and you must be prepared. This is your first time to really talk to your angel, so you must breathe deeply, and you must not hurry her. She can be in so many places at once, but she is not yours to order as though she were a servant.
“Breathe, Matteo. Breathe deep, like you’re taking in the air of a mountain, or of the sea, or of a forest that only you know about. Breathe deep, and as you release that breath, I want you to see more and more details of the world around you. Feel yourself in your chair, but feel your chair hold you. Feel yourself in the arms of your angel, and maybe imagine what it is like to hold your soul.”
Johanna’s smile glowed at the words, as though she could truly see the image of an angel with brilliant, enormous wings holding the young soul of a human being. The girl had always had an eye for imagery, a knack for poetry, an ability to draw images; and yet for all her creativity, she, too, knew how to listen. Her eyes went from Fr. Romy, then to Matteo, and to Fr. Romy again, as though remembering the scene and keeping it in her memories.
Years later, Fr. Romy would remember the sight of the girl, seemingly so old in how she despaired over her essay scores, and yet so young as she imbibed the instructions that would keep Matteo safe. Even when she had makeup on, was in tears from her heartaches, spoke with the authority of someone who taught writing, she would always look like a child striving to show her father that she was not merely there to be dressed and paraded. And that child – that poor child –
On that afternoon, there were no painful memories yet. There was only the task of training Matteo, and it lasted long minutes that seemed to spread themselves out into hours.
“Now, start building your path to your place with your guardian angel,” Fr. Romy went on, “Maybe it’s a dirt road, maybe it’s a concrete path, maybe it’s pebbles or bricks or cobblestones. Build it slowly. I want you to remember every single detail. If you are afraid, or if you don’t know what to do, imagine that you are walking with Jesus. He is her master, so if there is something that you need, then ask Him.
“When you are at the end of your path, Matteo, I want you to sit down with your angel. I don’t want you to talk to her immediately, but I want you to sit with her. Breathe the air with her. Tell her that you love Jesus, that you don’t want to displease Him, that you will always make sure that you do not sin. But show her images of that love, of not wanting to displease Jesus, of not wanting to fall into sin. Do it slowly, and breathe with every image that you show, like you’re breathing these pictures into life.”
The Castroverde couple smiled. Even the once gruff Mr. Castroverde did not grunt; he watched his son, nestled a smile on one side of his mouth, even gazed upon his daughter who seemed to lie within the protective veil of her brother’s angel.
“I don’t know how you will do it, but find a way to send her images,” Fr. Romy continued, “Maybe you’re playing a movie for her, or maybe you’re showing her different photographs, one by one. I know it’s difficult to understand now, but I think you’re ready to do it because you’ve accepted your guardian angel as your protector, not as some spirit for you to send about to do your bidding. Talk to her now as someone who is with you always, and who guides you on the right path, and who is afraid for you if you take the wrong one.”
Johanna watched her brother, and the sigh she released was one of astonishment. She remained seated, and yet appeared untired; she was perhaps warmed by his glow, perhaps even felt it travel like new blood through her bones. She saw something, it appeared, on her brother’s skin: her brows knotted, she leaned forward, and used her free hand to wipe his hair back onto his head. Her hands came back wet, as though Matteo were bathed in water.
Fr. Romy nodded at her to be calm. “This will take a while, Matteo, but Johanna is here to listen to the instructions, and if you need to talk to your guardian angel at any other time, then she can do this with you at home as well,” and then, when Johanna returned the priest’s nod, “Now, you said earlier that you sometimes see a lot of angels, lots of lights and shadows, but sometimes you see too much and you wish things would slow down. And yet you also said that you always remember how your guardian angel guides you.
“I think your guardian angel is shielding you – and not just from demons, Matteo, but from an onslaught of angels. There are millions, billions of them, like so many stars in the sky. And you remember how we always tell you that angels hide their true selves, because they are terrible to behold? They are of beauty so great, our human imaginations cannot fathom them; they are supranatural creatures that go beyond space and time, with a language that would destroy us if we tried to learn it.
“And if we were to see these angels at the heights of their powers – oh child, their beauty and anger and rage would tear your soul apart. Theirs is a reality that we humans are too small to understand, and we can only hope to hear it in bits and pieces as we ponder the humility of our station. To aspire to be as angels is to aspire to be that same angel who fell from the Heavens. You must welcome this shield, for your guardian angel is protecting you, because your gift is of gravest danger to you as well.”
Fr. Exo and Fr. Levi exchanged a glance of approval. Whether it was for their brother Jesuit’s eloquence or Matteo’s continued peace despite the gravity of Fr. Romy’s warning, no one could tell.
“You have to constantly talk to your guardian angel after this,” Fr. Romy returned to the task that he had promised Matteo, “Today, I want you to talk to her as you would a friend. Let’s begin. I want you to show images; and for every image, breathe out, breathe the idea into life.
“Show her the one time that you were most thankful that she was there for you. Thank her, now, but do not do it because you have to. Do it because you are genuinely, truly thankful.”
Matteo did not nod, let alone acknowledge that Fr. Romy had spoken, but there was something on the boy’s face that showed that he had obeyed the order. Perhaps it was the smile that seemed to add a blast of sunshine to the glow that already veiled the boy. Perhaps it was the single bead of sweat that rolled down his temple, onto his cheek, then his chin, before dropping onto the table and disappearing almost immediately.
“Now if you are done, I want you to show her the one time that you knew that she was there,” then, as Fr. Romy remembered their conversation earlier, “I know that you can’t remember exactly what she looks like, but try to go back to your memories, to the ones that are true, to the ones where you can still remember seeing her. I want you to show them to her, in a movie or a series of images. I don’t know how you will do it, but I want you to do it slowly.
“Breathe in, then breathe out an image. Breathe your acknowledgment of your guardian angel to life. Go slow, Matteo. Don’t hurry. She is a creature of billion years, and she knows everything; do not hurry her, and do not hurry yourself.”
Fr. Genio had brought Yaya to the kitchen doorway to watch. She looked upon Matteo more with worry than with amazement, for by then, Matteo seemed as though he had bathed and then dried himself in turns. First there was sweat, then there was none; there were beads of water in the strands of his hair, then they were gone.
“And finally, I need you to ask your guardian angel for help,” Fr. Romy’s voice was now even slower, as though he knew that Matteo was struggling, and had to be coaxed carefully, “I want you to show her what you believe the problem is. You said that you feel you see too many things at once, that you try so hard to listen but you get distracted. I know that you feel something very deeply, that you are both afraid and unsure; I want you to show this to her.
“I want you to be truthful to your angel. I want you to pour out these stories to her in your images. Show her what you are afraid of. Show her what you see, and how it makes you feel. But I want you to learn how not to blame her for not being able to shield you from everything. Remember, she does not will for you to be hurt, does not want you to be harmed. She also works under God’s will, and there might be a greater reason that you are allowed to see these many different angels. She is only working with God, but she listens, too.”
Matteo’s brow was drenched; his crown glistened from beneath his curls. And yet he continued to breathe in, to breathe out, to take in air with hardly any effort, to push out air as though he were indeed sending forth the images for his guardian angel to see.
“You will now ask for her help,” Fr. Romy sounded grave, as though he were about to impart both a lesson and a warning, “But do not simply request something. Show her your hopes, your dreams – show how you want to see the world in which you live: maybe you want fewer angels, maybe you want her to block out the demons entirely, or – maybe you want to surrender your gift. Some people choose to give up their gifts because they are scared, or because they cannot see themselves completing the task ahead of them. Be honest with her. Be honest with yourself. If you want to let the gift go, then you must ask her to help you pray that it be taken away.”
The slightest shake of the head came from the boy. He appeared older, in that single moment, in that almost unnoticeable show of strength; he appeared as though he had indeed worked with his gift for centuries, and knew how to harness it without allowing himself to be enslaved by his own vanities.
Fr. Romy’s voice grew warmer, “You alone know your dreams, Matteo, but you also have to remember that your gift was given to you for a reason. You are gifted because you are called to do something, to help people, to bear good fruits and not simply be the lamp under the bowl.
“So: when you ask her for your angel’s help, I want you to recognize that there is something that you are being called to do with your gifts as well. You and I do not know it yet; perhaps your angel does, but she will choose not to tell you because she knows how you must grow properly, how you must first be schooled and learned in the ways of the world. She is working within the boundaries of God’s will, but she also hears the cries of your heart. You are allowed to cry with her.”
Fr. Romy stopped once again. A breeze blew through the room, carrying with it a calming cool that threatened to bring knives of ice. He looked at Fr. Genio, then Fr. Jun, then the Castroverde couple; they all simply looked back, and gave no signal whatsoever that the old warmth had been replaced by a bitter frost.
“Ask for her guidance, Matteo,” Fr. Romy spoke once again, slow, as he felt the air on his skin and waited for it to show any sign of coming harm, “Ask her to help you do God’s will, but also ask that you be given the strength for the road ahead, wherever it might lead. I know you want to talk to her now, so would you like us to be silent for a moment?”
A few seconds passed, dancing on the waves of wind that blew through the hall, rushing forth as floods into the world outside, tiptoeing on the branches of the trees as they rustled and creaked. The seconds grew into heavy minutes that walked through the room with slow paces, until the slowest of nods came from the little boy.
Fr. Romy smiled, glad that the child had not simply asked to be left alone with his thoughts, “Johanna and I will sit with you, Matteo, so don’t be afraid,” and, as the rest of the room moved about with gentle footsteps, “Talk to your angel and ask her to help you see the world the way you want to see it, but without removing your chance to help humanity in the way you can do best. Show her your dreams. Whenever you are ready to hear my voice again, I want you to speak up and call my name. Do you understand?”
Matteo’s nod was slow, peaceful, as though he were truly happy to be in two worlds at once.
Fr. Genio and Yaya returned to their cooking, though Yaya sometimes came to the doorway to check on her ward. Fr. Levi sat next to Johanna, opened her book on philosophy, and signaled that she should read while she waited. Fr. Jun and Fr. Exo were coming close enough to a wrestling match, as the gangly anthropologist tried to take away the professor’s bag of candies; while the professor, all belly and no arms, found himself seated on the nearest stool with a very big, very full glass of water. The Castroverde parents remained where they were, and, for want of anything to do, simply sat and watched their son.
No one knew how long it had taken, nor how long it felt. For some reason, the clock on the wall ticked minutes by as though its hands were traveling through syrup. The wind, though cool and comforting, seemed to move as though it were swimming through stormy waters. And any conversation, whether deliberate or harried, always sounded as though every single syllable had been handpicked by a Creator whose words carried both meaning in thought, and a meaning to be birthed into reality.
“Father Romy,” Matteo spoke, with a voice that broke into the stillness, and yet seemed to ride on the peace of the room.
“I’m here, Matteo,” Fr. Romy replied immediately. Even Johanna, who had always lost herself in her books, looked up from her work immediately and pressed her brother’s hand, “We’re all here. Are you still with your guardian angel?”
Matteo nodded, this time earnestly, and this time with a wide smile.
“And have you shown her everything?” Fr. Romy asked.
Again, a nod, and a smile that made the afternoon bright and golden.
“May I ask if your guardian spoke to you, or is speaking to you?” Fr. Romy sounded solicitous, but there was a halting tremor in his voice, as though he were thinking of something else.
Matteo’s brow wrinkled, as though he did not know what to make of the question; or as though the question made sense only in the outside world, but not in the happy place that he had made in honor of his guardian angel. Fr. Romy, however, seemed relieved, as though any other response would have disappointed him.
“What do you feel, Matteo?” again, Fr. Romy’s voice seemed to bounce between syllables, “Can you tell me what you feel, right now?”
As usual, Matteo was not immediate in his responses; and yet no one teased him for it, least of all Fr. Exo, who was beaming upon the boy.
When the child spoke, his voice was round, deliberate, as though he had chosen every single word carefully, as though he had been guided by a force wiser than he.
“I feel very safe, Fr. Romy,” even the priest’s name sounded crystalline, “I do not see my guardian angel’s face, but I know that she is here with me. I cannot hear her voice, but it feels like she is telling me that she is protecting me. And I think she is telling me that I should work at being good, because she can protect me from the demons that will try to tempt me, but I have to be strong because I have to keep helping her fight.”
Fr. Romy nodded, but he did not respond. He held the cross around his neck with his right hand, murmured something, then watched Matteo’s face.
“I need to ask you one thing more, Matteo,” Fr. Romy finally spoke, “Did you angel say anything about your mission, and why you can see angels?”
The shake of the head was rapid, but Matteo’s brow was furrowed, as though he were trying to pry apart different voices and guess at their meaning, “I tried to ask that, Fr. Romy,” he sounded as though he had been scolded earlier, “But I felt that she said that one day, I will know, so I must be prepared by being good and praying to Jesus.”
“What about your future, Matteo? Did she say anything about what you would be when you grow up?”
“No, Father, but I don’t think I should ask her things like that.”
There was a gasp from Fr. Exo, which he quickly tempered when Fr. Romy raised his free hand, prompting the man to calm down.
“Why do you say that, Matteo?” Fr. Romy inquired, as gentle as before, “Is your guardian angel angry with you?”
“No, Father,” again, the speed of the child’s response was unnatural, but his voice was still slow, measured, “She wants me to trust in God’s will. And I think that if she protects me and I work to be a good boy, then I will do God’s will one day.”
“I want to thank your guardian angel, Matteo. May I do that?”
“Oh! There was another angel here earlier – she must have been yours! I couldn’t see her but I could feel that my guardian angel was talking to someone. I heard a thank you. So I think your guardian angel said thank you to mine?”
The words were simple, almost casual, but they seemed to spread the relief across the room: from Fr. Romy, to Fr. Levi at the same table, to Fr. Jun and Fr. Exo in the kitchen doorway, to Fr. Genio who stood between the two priests. And, as a body, they crossed themselves, bowed their heads to their chests, and prayed. There was a low hum of voices, of varying prayers, from prescribed lines to spontaneous sentences; but there was never a discordant buzz, never a blast of sound that irritated or beleaguered. There was only a steady peace, as though the long note of the violin that was Matteo was now joined by gentle woodwinds in chorus.
“I still want to thank her again, Matteo, so please do that for me,” Fr. Romy finally spoke, after a few minutes of prayer, and with the wondering eyes of the rest of the family still upon him, “I will now ask you to thank her again, in images, and for this chance to talk to her.”
Matteo was as serene as ever, but his smile was wide, glowing, as though he had simply been asked to take leave of a dear friend. He did not respond, but from the warmth of the room, and from the golden aura that continued to envelope him, it appeared that he was, indeed, in another universe, learning to speak to a guardian angel whose language superseded the bounds of time and space.
And yet when Fr. Romy bade the child open his eyes, he was simply Matteo the little boy who asked the priests questions, laughed when they teased him, ate whatever they gave to him. The only difference was that his brow was drenched in sweat, and he appeared as though he had run for miles through sunlit fields. He pressed his sister’s hand, and he smiled at her with the same brightness, but he was not as awake as when his eyes had been closed; and he admitted as much, when he whispered to Johanna that he felt as though he needed to take a bath and go to bed.
Fr. Romy was calm as he gave instructions: he asked Fr. Jun and Fr. Levi to take Yaya and Matteo upstairs, to where there were showers for guests, and where there were spare clothes for the boy. And if he needed to nap, then there, too, was a guest room. He asked Fr. Exo to help Fr. Genio in the kitchen, for the cook seemed rather anxious, both on account of how exhausted Matteo appeared, and the slight smell of something burning black and crumbly at the bottom of a stew pot. He asked the Castroverde family, finally, to sit at the table.
The explanation was as slow and deliberate as Matteo had spoken that afternoon, as though Fr. Romy were holding down his excitement. No, it was not a trance, and Matteo had not placed himself in danger; it was, if anything, a test if the gift had remained intact, and if there truly was a gift at all.
Mr. Castroverde looked back at the priest in what appeared like a combination of amazement and horror, as though he were ready to defend his child against what he perceived was an experiment.
“I assure you that I have planned this for a long time, Mr. Castroverde, and that this is not some guessing game,” Fr. Romy assured the man, voice still gentle, tone solid, “I would never put Matteo in harm’s way. But I wanted to check if he was lying or making things up; your son never did. He was candid, truthful; he wasn’t afraid to tell me that he didn’t see his angel well, or that he couldn’t remember her. Your son genuinely has a gift, but now he has to learn how to control it, or it will take over everything. I hope I can trust you, Johanna, to help him?”
“Of course!” Johanna was still the little girl who protected her brother like an all-too willing soldier (and whose voice drowned out the low grunt from her yet skeptical father), “But – Fr. Romy, why did you make him show pictures and not talk?”
Fr. Romy smiled, recognizing how the question seemed to be tripping on the girl’s tongue for the last two hours, “Your brother is very young, so he might not have the full vocabulary of an adult yet, and he might not be able to express himself as well,” he glanced quickly at Mr. Castroverde, “It was part of his protection: I did not want him to say anything along the lines of summoning an angel, which we should never do. But I believe that Matteo has a good deal of discernment, of thinking through things, and of seeing things happening in his head before he speaks. I didn’t know if it would work, but it was one way for him to show ideas to his angel, because she would be able to share his vision, as it were.”
“So why did he have to keep breathing slowly?”
“That was to calm him down, to make him practice mindfulness, to help him control what he sees. He has to play an active part in all this, and he will have to keep practicing because he won’t be good at it immediately. But once he can control his gift – or at least control how he reacts to it – then he will be safe, and he can be of help in many ways, not least of all to the church.
“And if you notice, the breathing was always joined to prayer, so he has to learn how to fit prayers in, and how to keep himself safe, but without overwhelming himself with the world of the angels.”
Fr. Exo’s voice rolled in from the kitchen, “And don’t forget that step, Dr. Castroverde,” he addressed Johanna, “You have to help him breathe, but you should also make him pray, show images – don’t just make him see things or do things without guidance, or he will open himself up to vanity. You know very well what happens next when vanity arrives.”
Johanna smiled, nodded, blushed at his new pet name for her, “I’ll remember, Fr. Exo,” then, to Fr. Romy, “But what do we do if he gets too tired to do anything? Is that normal?”
Mrs. Castroverde finally spoke, “He won’t get sick, will he?” her voice sounded faint, but it pierced through her breathing, as though she had been worried for the last few hours and had never been given the chance to speak, “He looked so tired!’
“He’ll be all right, Mrs. Castroverde,” Fr. Romy’s voice was as calm as ever, his syllables as gentle as fingers reaching across the room to bestow a blessing on the mother’s head, “Matteo is strong. I don’t know if you saw it from where you were, but his smile was glowing. He was happy, and his guardian angel protected him well.”
“It’s true, mom,” Johanna nodded, “And his hands were really warm. He was sweating but his hands were dry.”
“And in this regard, I must admit that I don’t know why he was sweating at all,” Fr. Romy added, with a tone tentative enough to make Fr. Exo look out at him from the kitchen, “I can’t guess as to why. Any idea, Exodo?”
“Maybe it was difficult,” Fr. Exo shrugged, “It’s his first time to actually sit and talk, and breathe slowly. I know of some people who struggle to sit still, and find it more tiring to be meek, present company included but no offense meant.”
The priest waved at Johanna before returning to the kitchen. Johanna, for her part, simply laughed, and ignored her father’s open dismay. There had been no quarrels between father and daughter ever since the exorcism incident, but the man had nevertheless been so set in his ways, no amount of compliments by scholarly Jesuit priests would make him veer away from his dream of Johanna the Good Wife.
Fr. Romy ignored the resentment on the man’s face. Years later, he wished he had addressed it much sooner, quashed it into submission if it came to that.
“So you must help your little brother in new ways once again, Johanna,” Fr. Romy spoke, as gently as he could, and directly to the young woman, “I know you are busy, but as you protect him and strengthen him, so will he also protect you, as all good siblings should.”
“And if the other sibling might be too slow in his protection, then we’ll protect you,” came from the kitchen, where Fr. Exo was eating yet another chocolate bar, “Call us if your brother doesn’t behave.”
“No more candies for you,” Fr. Genio snatched the snack out of his brother Jesuit’s hand.
There was laughter, and yet another blush from Johanna, as the evening drew deeper, and as Fr. Romy gave his final instructions. Later, he would regret not speaking further, about how Johanna could indeed call on the priests whenever she could; how the priests would help her in any way they could, so that she simply had to drag her friends to the House of the Jesuits and they would scrutinize every single soul; how Johanna was truly not alone in protecting her little brother.
On that afternoon, the priest simply observed the Castroverde family; and, that night, wrote his observations in his notes. Matteo was sweating, tired when he left his angel, but happy. The wind that swept through the dining hall was always comfortably cool, as though he were being soothed but reassured that there were no demons about. The air in the room felt thick, but not oppressive; thin, but not frosty; he could smell the stew in the kitchen but did not feel hunger, could hear everyone’s voices but not feel overwhelmed. Only two hours had passed, the clock on the wall had said; and yet the time felt like both centuries and mere moments, as though he had been made to see a second of his life while glimpsing eternity.
Fr. Romy had never encountered a child who could see angels. Ghosts, yes, though the presence of human souls in an earthly plane was debatable; demons, yes, for many demons wore the guise of human souls in their bid to ensnare the living into false worship and despair; the saints, yes, though rarely; and the Virgin Mary, though even rarer. Some children could see the future or discover hidden things, but these gifts were reserved for the angels and misused by demons; the children, therefore, were closely guarded and constantly monitored. The priests that worked on their cases traveled the world, and met constantly at an office just outside the Vatican’s doorstep. They lacked no funds, space, time, or companionship, for they all also worked in large teams.
Fr. Romy had never worked on a case all by himself. He did his best, then, to document everything, for it was the only thing that was consistent after his years of training in Rome, before the war; after his years of hiding in the province, while the war raged in Manila; through his years of seeing the Philippine republic go from leader to leader, until that moment when there seemed to be a different kind of war looming.
There were no babies crying this time, no warnings from a multitude of innocents, no talk of an army marching or a fascist leader coming into power. But there were newspapers aplenty, and even more talk amongst the students and seminarians, of fleeing the classrooms and taking to the streets, of speaking out for those whose voices had been silenced. There was still a dictator for a president, who reportedly planted bombs to justify his version of Martial Law. There were those who supported him, who said that his work was needed to clean out the country, who turned away when the police came for the students and professionals who dared to criticize the government, who even defended the military when the same students and professionals turned up in a ditch, or a river, or a landfill, bodies riddled with bullets, bones crushed by sledgehammers, eyes gouged, brains spilling out –
There was a shadowy Something, a Death of goodness, a Willingness to surrender because the quiet of safety was better than the screams of the holding cells.
“You cannot drive us out when everyone wants to keep us in,” a victim had once screamed at Fr. Genio, in perfect Aramaic, “You cannot tell us to leave when everyone wants us to stay.”
The cases – they were far more frequent, and they tired Fr. Romy out with all the documentation that he had to do. He took notes when the rest of the exorcists shared their experiences at their victims’ bedsides, took notes when the rest of his brother Jesuits talked about how their students were simmering with anger and fire in their debates, took notes when Matteo had the courage to face his guardian angel.
Much later, he wished he had looked more closely at his notes, had kept Matteo and Johanna nearer, had paid closer heed to the elder sister with all her ideas and strength.
On that afternoon, he simply made Johanna repeat the steps back to him over and over, until she not only perfected the sequence, but even discussed the rationale for the procedure. He could not help thinking how correct Fr. Exo’s title had been: Dr. Castroverde was fast growing into a scholar, and yet was still the sister who adored her little brother.
Matteo went home safely that night. He never got sick, despite his mother’s fears; and he was really, truly happy, still glowing days after the conversation with his angel, Johanna reported later.
And Fr. Romy continued to take notes, to write about the little boy whose gift was perhaps one of the rarest of all: a joined vision of the wars of heaven, a gift that the Vatican had to know about as soon as the young man knew of his vocation.
Fr. Romy did write of it, two years after he had first taught the child how to calm himself. It was a single sentence amongst a multitude of scribbles, a single prayer amongst the thousands that the priest had made in his years in the ministry. He never stopped taking notes, even when his colleagues used their typewriters that clacked and cackled like conversations dancing with metal shoes on cement floors; even when those typewriters were replaced by bulky, hulking masses of what looked like metal and plastic that blared green lights onto a darkened screen. Fr. Romy wrote of Matteo, and the cases, and the many languages that accosted Fr. Genio, and the children who became monsters despite Fr. Levi’s efforts, and the counsel that Fr. Jun gave, and the lectures that Fr. Exo made.
He wrote, tireless, until Matteo was seventeen. That year, a pope visited the Philippines to canonize the country’s first saint.
That year, a country so deeply pressed into the mud of despair and false enlightenment saw a light that was all warmth, and no rhetoric. It paid heed to the words of a young pontiff who dared question the president, who saw beyond the veneer of luxury with which the dictator surrounded himself in his island of a palace, who traveled across the islands and spoke to old, young, rich, poor, high and mighty, small and suffering – who called for change like a clanging bell with a rich single note that thundered across the silence of those who had pretended to be asleep.
That year, a girl escaped to the Vatican with her family and her memories, and left the country forever.