Johanna was the third, and perhaps the most important person of Matteo’s childhood. It was she who wrote and read him stories (and later, newspaper articles), helped Yaya read and write, reported to the priests, helped him sharpen his ability to talk to his guardian angel. She always acted older than her true age: her stories of angels who fought wars bravely alongside princesses rather horrified her father, her ability to teach Yaya impressed her mother, her ability to speak precisely of Matteo’s behavior amazed the Jesuit exorcists, and her ability to help Matteo with his gift made the boy feel less alone.
She was not always as tactful, however. She badgered him for a description of her angel, and though she was rather charming about it, the priests had to caution her not to turn her little brother into a medium, or to take too great an advantage of his gifts. When she won awards at school, she tended to gloat especially in front of her father; but after the exorcism episode, she was less a peacock, more an owl. And when she discussed anything at all with the priests – languages with Fr. Genio, theology with Fr. Exo, catechism with Fr. Romy, current events with Fr. Jun, and writing with Fr. Levi – she could well have burst into flames with her excitement.
Her father’s, “Where will you find a husband who will put up with your noise?” was greeted with a growl from the little Johanna, a glare from the teenager, and, after college, a series of retorts that ran the range of amusing (“I’ll find one and he’ll be noisier than me, too!”) to ribald (“And what noise would he like to hear, I wonder?”).
Her mother’s, “Oh, Johanna!” was cause for the little Johanna to stop and embrace the woman, for the teenager to roll her eyes, and for the professional writer and instructor to simply laugh and ask Matteo if her guardian angel approved (the angel did not).
But Johanna, for all her wit and energy, had a kind heart. Yaya was testament enough to her ability to teach; Matteo was testament enough to her ability to write. It came as no surprise that she studied journalism in college, and no surprise, certainly, that she was both a teacher and a writer for a food magazine. What was surprising, however, was how she had been so receptive to the attentions of a boy whom she met at a party, and who had been introduced to her by her father.
Matteo was the first to know all about the young man: Johanna pulled her brother into her bedroom right after dinner one evening, made him sit on the edge of her bed, and sat in front of him with a face that spelled both hyper-focus on a topic and the coming of calculations and plans. It was the face of a Johanna who wanted to solve problems and had all the means and schemes to do so.
“Papa introduced us at the party last week, the one you couldn’t go to,” she spoke slowly, as though feeling guilty for even bringing it up. Matteo couldn’t go simply because he took much longer to complete his math homework, and Mrs. Castroverde would not allow him to leave the house until it was finished, “And he’s the son of papa’s client. Now, don’t tell papa, but today, he surprised me at school. He sat in on my class and brought me cookies.”
Matteo nodded, but fought to smile, even when the sight of a happy Johanna had always contaminated him in the past. There was something tugging at the edge of his thinking, something that said that simply bearing the gift of cookies, or going to someone’s workplace, was not enough to warrant this much excitement.
Johanna was too happy to notice that Matteo was listening, but not sharing her joy. “And he asked me out for this Saturday!” she held both hands up immediately, “I know that we’re going to the House of the Jesuits, so I said that I couldn’t because I needed to help you with something, and he was really, really nice, so now we’re going out on Friday night!”
“Ok,” Matteo was still struggling to smile, but something was now telling him to tell Johanna not to be so hasty, and he recognized the warmth of his guardian angel, “That’s really nice, Ate, but there’s a curfew, and don’t you have to work?”
“Ay Matt-Matt! My last class ends at three, so I can have an early dinner with him!” Johanna replied, whisper still high, but pitch verging on exasperation, “Or, I can meet him for snacks, and I’ll find a way to bring him here so that Papa can see that I’m actually normal.”
“What?” Matteo could feel the warmth of his guardian angel, but he had to ignore her in favor of trying to comprehend what exactly Johanna was saying, “Of course you’re normal!”
“You know papa,” she sighed; in that split-moment of sadness, Matteo saw his sister’s guardian angel embrace her with a veil of rosy golden light, “He wants me to be married, he wants me to start meeting boys, and he thinks that I work too much.”
“But, let me assure you that this boy is really nice, and I’m not just using him to show him off to papa.”
“Ok, but –”
“Besides, he liked my class, and he even said that he wanted to keep sitting in because he learned a lot from how I made the students write about how leaders should be servants and not peacocks.”
“What? Oh my God, Ate –”
“So I’m sure he’s safe, but if I don’t like him in the first ten minutes– or twenty minutes – of our date, then I won’t even bring him home.”
“You might –”
“His cookies were really nice, too. I shared them with everybody at the office. They also think he’s cute. I really think you should meet him. You don’t have to check on his guardian angel, but you know, it would be really nice if you did – but you don’t have to! But he seems really nice, really, Matteo!”
Matteo could not even make a proper reply. He wanted to respond to the idea of marriage being brought up so early, and what seemed to be a rather unseemly use of a man to prove their father wrong, and then Johanna’s rather speedy ride into the land of reckless teaching with an outsider in her classroom whom she barely knew. He completely forgot all his replies every time she interrupted him, and all he could do was take both her hands, look her straight in the eye, and speak with as much deliberate slowness as he could.
“Ate: Be careful, and ask papa’s permission first,” he began, sensing his guardian angel, and – strangely, seeing his sister’s guardian angel once again, with none of his control coming to the fore, “Be careful, and make sure you get home before dinner, with or without him, because you don’t want to be caught outside – not you. It’s not safe.”
Matteo’s words echoed what he had heard from his parents, who had always given the same admonition to Johanna, and mostly because she taught a writing course and was free with her opinions, whether she was at the dinner table or in her classroom (“Too free!” her father once moaned). He echoed the whispers amongst the seminarians in the House of the Jesuits, who he sometimes overheard talking about a protest rally, or who were assigned to the Archbishop’s palace to help guard the likewise outspoken man. He echoed even Yaya’s groaning, for she saw Johanna as her teacher, but was often murmuring, too, of how the forward women of the cities were rather frightening to provincial girls (“You’re a city girl now, too, Yaya!” Johanna once retorted, much to Yaya’s shock).
And the gravity of Matteo’s tone echoed that of his priest-mentors, who were as afraid for Johanna’s welfare, even as they engaged her in discussions and allowed her to speak. Matteo might not have had her electric fervor, but when he spoke as though he were a priest himself, and when he drew both the gentle and remonstrating into his voice, she was calmed – or at least scolded into silence – immediately.
“I know that you’re smart, Ate, and that you know how to take care of yourself,” Matteo measured his syllables out, for he could sense that he was being sent a warning, and not by his own guardian angel, “I know that he seems nice, and that he likes how you teach and what you teach. Just – don’t stay out too late, and not on a Friday night. Things aren’t peaceful now.”
“Things haven’t been peaceful in years,” Johanna replied, voice steady, but with none of the discerning deliberation of Matteo’s, “I grew up with a government that made promises, Matteo: it promised to help its people get a better education, it promised to build bridges and roads to make us all one country, it promised to feed the hungry and uplift the poor.
“But now our schools are being emptied of bright minds only because they want to speak the truth about what they see: we have to hide the truth of our poverty behind infrastructure; we have a First Lady who sells her version of entertainment to make people forget their hardships and to cover up how her husband is doing nothing for this country; we have a military that kidnaps students at night all because its government can’t answer questions about where its funds are going; we have the president’s children who order people to be killed and who get their way no matter where they go; we have the president’s cronies who get money for just licking the president’s boots.
“And we have the Pope coming in a few weeks, and all the president wants to do is put makeup on a country that he destroyed.
“Do you want me to go on? I still have a lot to say, and I’m still alive after over a decade of thinking and talking like this.”
Johanna had made the same speech, though in different permutations, many times before. And there was nothing that Matteo could argue with; it was not because he did not know what to answer, but because he could see the truth, indeed, in how the celestial battles played out. It was a miracle that he learned how to control his gift early: when Martial Law began, he could hardly see the world through the shadows that overtook his visions, and he could hardly even glimpse the angels victorious when those same shadows seemed to taunt even the priests and try to penetrate through the angelic ranks of the House of the Jesuits. Where one or two demons successfully broke through the barriers in the past, there were hordes now, and they felt like armies of both vanity and lies.
Vanity felt like a host of people who believed in what stories were peddled to them; Lies felt like a host of people who told those stories and believed in their own myths, reveled in the spells they cast, fed into the images they conjured. The country was doing well, Matteo could hear the humans talk: we had infrastructure, we had a pretty good economy, but when all these students started rebelling and being ungrateful, then the president could do nothing but put his military in charge, or the country would go to ruin.
But the country is doing well, we have a lot of pretty buildings, even the Pope is coming to visit in a few weeks and he would probably commend the president for a job well done because it is a wonderful Catholic country that lives in truth and love and beauty –
And the demons that spoke beneath this veneer cackled and gossiped in a language that sounded like dull blades of iron scraping against bone.
That night, Matteo did not dare look at the world in which his guardian angel lived, but he could sense her hovering, counseling other angels, allowing them to send their own messages to her ward. For his part, Matteo could only put his hands on both his sister’s shoulders, glare at her, and pray.
“Ok: fine,” Johanna relented, slouching into a sigh, “I’ll ask papa, and I won’t stay out late.”
“And you’ll take care,” Matteo continued for her, “And you won’t talk about anything that might put you in danger.”
“And I’ll take care,” she droned, eyes narrowed at him, “And I’ll speak my mind.”
“Ate,” the boy spoke through his teeth, “What if he’s the son of a crony?”
The grin that met his frustration was both charming and infuriating, “Then I’ll find a way for him to think!”
“I don’t think that’s going to work.”
“He’s not a son of a crony. Plus: He likes how I teach.”
“What if that’s his way of getting you to trust him?”
“That’s why you’ll check on his guardian angel tomorrow.”
“Matt-Matt, I’m kidding.”
Whenever an argument concluded with Johanna’s nickname for Matteo, he had no other recourse but to give up. Their conversation usually ended with reassurance on Johanna’s part, or the girl reaching over and messing up her younger brother’s dark curls. On that night, however, something happened for what would be the first and last time in a very long time: Johanna eased her shoulders out of Matteo’s grasp and threw her arms around his neck in a tight embrace.
Johanna always embraced Matteo, and he interpreted the gesture as nothing more than a sister’s show of affection at a time when her younger brother seemed to be all-too worried over nothing. Days later, Matteo would regret his embarrassed pat of one hand on her back, and his hasty embrace in response. Had he known how she would fare mere days later, he would have held her, scolded her, and told her never to leave the house again.
The next few weeks, then, would shape Matteo’s vocation. It all began the next morning at breakfast, a Wednesday, at 7 AM.
Johanna asked her father for permission to go out with her new friend, Ferdie, on Friday. Her father said yes immediately: Ferdie was his client’s son, Ferdie was a good boy, Johanna was (should be) a good girl, and yes, they could go out, but she had to be back before dinner. Yes, she could bring him over.
Matteo nearly forgot to chew his breakfast at the speed at which his father granted everything, and with a giant smile to boot. Had Matteo taken the new boy’s nickname more seriously, he would have mustered all his courage, told his father to be more discerning and less preoccupied with having a “normal” daughter, and asked his mother to speak up. She was visibly uneasy, and yet she simply drank her coffee and smiled at Johanna’s near collapse into giggles.
That day at school, Matteo tried to concentrate on his long exams, because he needed high enough grades to graduate, even if he had already passed the entrance examination to the Jesuit university. He sat with his classmates, read through his science textbook, tried to work out the problems in his math textbook, looked through his notebooks and felt both lost and afraid of the morass that his thoughts made. Everyone was talking about the Pope’s visit, which would happen in less than two weeks; everyone was excited for high school to be over; everyone seemed to be so adept at math, and science, and at reading through their notes, while Matteo was simply worried about his grades and worried, more so, about his sister.
Matteo returned home right after the examinations, the way that he always did when his worries were too great, the way that Fr. Romy taught him as his technique for safeguarding his soul. The boy sat in his room and prayed. He did not touch his books, did not read, did not study or take notes. He was so deep in his conversation with his guardian angel, and so focused on his breathing, that he nearly did not hear the real-world conversation at the gate of his house.
He excused himself from his guardian angel’s presence, then ran to his window, opened the jalousies, and looked outside.
His window opened out onto the street, where he saw a young man, with his back turned, running toward a car that was parked under a tree and out of sight of the house.
There was no one else on the road, no other sounds except the clop-clop-clop of his sister’s pumps against the concrete, no other undertone to the afternoon except the crush-crush-crush of the man’s sneakers on the gravel outside. There, too, were the voices of angels and shadows that inhabited the world buried beneath Matteo’s breathing, but he ignored them in favor of staring out into the street below, to fully espy who it was that had so captivated the hitherto volatile Johanna.
He heard Johanna’s voice make its way through the garden and into the living room: she was talking to Yaya, with levity and brightness that were both so consistent with her fire, and yet seemingly out of place.
But – he was running. Ferdie was running – not walking casually or even looking back at the gate for a goodbye. Running.
Matteo tried to look out at the street, breathed, blinked slowly. All he could see were shadows at the end of the road, where the boy’s car was. And yet such a sight was not unknown, for there were always shadows there: it was a corner close enough to the highway, where there were police vans that sometimes made their way to and from their headquarters, or military trucks that sometimes plied the routes from north to south and back again – there was no telling, in these times, what kinds of beings they attracted, or what kinds of invisible creatures they carried with them.
Had Matteo truly seen the boy, he would have glimpsed the stronger outlines of shadows, the almost solid growls of the damned, the black blood and glistening blades that would have spoken of a truth that should have seen the light of day sooner. Matteo, however had little time to think then, for Johanna sprang his door open – she was not in the habit of knocking – and announced, “He brought me home!”
“Oh,” Matteo could not bring himself to smile, so warm was the warning that blossomed against his cheek, “That’s good, Ate. Didn’t he want to come in?”
Johanna shrugged, “He wanted to, but he said he remembered that he had to do something, so he had to run.”
Matteo could not say anything in response. The thought of a man running from Johanna seemed strange; much later, he would see it as one of the many signs that had been dropped, one by one, onto his path, that he should have heeded and examined and taken into consideration as his angel’s language of love and celestial anger. But Matteo was a brother, and he wanted to see his sister happy – and there she was, bright and shining, with a guardian angel whose light was far less brilliant, but loud in its wish to protect her.
He had to believe that Johanna was on a good path; he had to believe that any paranoia on his part was simply stamping a face of evil where there was only goodness, imputing meaning where there was none.
The next day was a Thursday, and Matteo was on the last day of his horror week of examinations (which had been planned so well by his teachers, who wanted to spend the next few weeks either catching the Pope on TV, or going to the streets to welcome him as his convoy passed). This time, the boy had to study grammar, read through his assigned texts in English literature, and practice for his oral exams, which meant staging debates with his classmates while taking quizzes at the back of his textbook while reading his notes on Silas Marner and, of all things, Faust. His mind was not so much a morass now, but a swamp that gurgled with activity and buzzed with drunken insects.
The only time they were interrupted was when they heard the sirens of police cars suddenly rolling into campus. It was normal to hear the sirens as mere whispers across the trees, on the avenue that seemed to be whole planets away from where the buildings of the high school stood, or on the streets of the larger state university a few blocks farther north, where there were protest rallies every day and army trucks aplenty.
Everyone who was studying went quiet; everyone who was taking an examination paused. The sirens seemed to be traveling across the college side, where the older students were; then to the elementary school side, where the youngest ones were probably playing. Then, the sirens were silent, and life – and the horrors of examinations – returned to the high school.
When the exams were over, Matteo returned home – there was no traffic then, and the jeepney ride was quick and uneventful, allowing the boy to breathe through his thoughts and pray through the storm of his ponderings. He was not in the habit of worrying about his examinations, but there was something tugging now, at the edge of his imagination, telling him that he needed to be worried for ever so many things that were coming his way.
Fr. Romy had warned him not to give in to his worries too readily, for to worry meant to despair, and to despair meant to give up hope in the mercies of a God who watched over all, and to give up the hope in mercies would open Matteo up to the dangers of demons who could tempt him to use his gifts in ways unintended. That was not to say that Matteo was never tempted; he had been trained to control his gift’s magnitude rather than its specific use, so that when the prospect of seeing the future, discovering people’s secrets, and even learning of the truth of the past were broached in conversation with the priests, he simply shrugged, shook his head, and did not even bother to try. The mere act of controlling the gift’s overwhelming power had tired him out that one afternoon; he could not imagine the mental strain it would take for him to even use the gift for something both deliberate and dangerous.
So, when he arrived home, he simply continued breathing, and then sat once more with his guardian angel in the garden that they had fashioned together over the last five years. He sat in her presence, asked her to ask God for calm, and begged for her to ease his worries, begged for her to make him happier for his sister.
And there it was, a warning of warmth, and from so many points at once.
His worries disappeared indeed, but in their place were so many angels, and this time of shapes and sizes that spoke of the other members of the hierarchy. There was Yaya’s baby angel, who was both ancient in his mien but young in his air; there was the warrior guardian coming up the path, with Johanna; and there was his angel, a woman of fiery wheels. But there, too, were some angels whose forms felt as though they had sprung out of a book, whose swords were bared high like torches of bright blue flame, whose faces were both unremarkable and terrible in their beauty. They had wings that wrapped crimson ribbons of fire around their bodies, and they belonged to other souls, but they had come to help.
Matteo found himself bowing to them.
He felt the angels around him bow as well, as though these were the highest in the hierarchy, the ones closest to God, the ones who rarely ever came to earth except to guard someone very important.
And he remembered: the Seraphim.
He recalled a story from one of Fr. Levi’s books, of the Virgin Mary being guarded by armies of seraphs. He wondered what it would be like to have such guardians, who were reserved only for those whose missions had to be closely protected and seen to their end. He wondered why the seraphs had come – he had never seen them, not even at the House of the Jesuits – when the house gate banged in what felt like both anger and hurry.
Matteo forgot to excuse himself from the company of the angels. He rushed to his window, ignored his breathing, forgot to control his gift, neglected the shield of the garden in favor of looking out at the street again.
Where once there was a reality of houses and roads, there now was a field alight with battle. There were lines upon lines of angels, faces unremarkable and yet horrible in their beauty and anger, wings unfurled and reflecting the coming sunset, blades raised as they cast forth blood-red fire and chased down hordes upon hordes of demons.
For the first time, Matteo clearly glimpsed the enemy: there were limbs that looked like the bare branches of trees cast in midnight shadows, claws that looked like mere twigs fighting against an evening breeze, fangs and black wings and tails and smoldering eyes that all melded into a reality that was too swift to even be comprehended, let alone remembered. They were the legions that Johanna had so feared to speak of, that had been named so many times in ancient texts that simply spoke of them as armies, that had a severe power that seemed to pull the sun from its place in the heavens and burn all the souls that witnessed the battle.
The angels were there, both the bad and the good, of every rank named and unnamed. The angelic messengers, lowest of the hierarchy, fought like sparkles of stars against dust and ash. The archangels, warriors in glassy, gem-studded armor, burned like rainbows of fire against a demonic horde that flashed darkly flaming swords. The Powers, with their shields and manacles, spun through the air and restrained shadows that groaned and growled in agony that shook the earth across time and space. The Virtues carried the light of grace and miracles, and cast forth nets of gold and silver, trapping thorns and brambles in their wake. The Dominions directed the charge, sent out soldiers into a battle afield, or above, or in places far on foot but near in the imagination of beings both celestial and timeless. The Thrones sliced across the lines as though borne by horses carrying bells of jewels. The Cherubim unfurled their wings in a sea of swarming bats that chittered and cackled even as the air grew thick with dark blood. The Seraphim sang, with their banners and swords raised, with their beauty screaming through the angelic and demonic ranks, so that they drowned out the shadows with the force of both sound and rage.
The battle was going on before Matteo’s eyes, and yet it shifted, like a series of photographs representing different places that existed all at the same time, in an anywhere and anywhen that was far too complex for a mere human being to witness.
And yet witness it, Matteo did, as he understood the stories he had merely heard about or read in the newspaper. The protests, the students who had been tortured, the money that had been spirited away after being sucked out of honest and hungry taxpayers, the children who died slowly in a famine, the rebels who had hidden themselves in the mountains and took delight in kidnapping and flaying any army man they came across…
…and the world beyond his, the Olympics tainted by murder, the bombs dropped upon a country across the sea, people slain because of the color of their skin, people tortured because of the color of their skin, the nine hundred and eighteen troubled souls who had followed a leader that led them to their deaths –
There was no glory in war, Matteo’s history teachers often said; and there was so much evil in a country that prided itself on being the last bastion of Catholicism in the Far East, the newspapers cried. Matteo could hear his teachers as they spoke of the bombing of Manila and how they quaked in fear, how they hid beneath the bloodied bodies of the dead so that they would not be injured by the bullets of the Japanese, how they wept for their mothers who had died swiftly under a bayonet or their fathers who had died slowly as they marched for days to the death camps. Matteo could hear Johanna’s voice as she read out yet another article on corruption in the government, yet another opinion piece that spoke of the illusions of the dictatorship, yet another report that a writer or a student or a professor had been found dead, maimed, mangled beyond recognition.
There was a war, indeed, in a battlefield that transcended the limits of language and time. And there was a reality that spoke to the truth of the words that had once been read to him, that now echoed and re-echoed in his brain – a world of memories matching themselves onto the millions of realities that were being created all at the same time.
Matteo fought against the onslaught of angels and demons and slashes of anger and roars of rage. He watched the street below, peered through the layers of reality and language, completely forgot to calm himself and shield himself and breathe – because he had to see who this boy was, and he had to know if there was someone deceiving his sister.
He could see only the same boy running down the street, to his car. Running, as though he, too were being chased by the angelic army.
Something told Matteo that the realities were one and the same, that of the world in which humanity lived and that of the plane in which angels dwelt. And yet there was too much going on for the boy to think properly, too much before his eyes for him to even recognize that there was an up and a down, an inside and an out, a him and a universe.
Matteo peered into the scene, tried to see the boy and his car, tried to listen for his sister – but the vision of the battle weighed upon the world, forced itself before his eyes until he could no longer see houses or roads or gardens or trees. All he could see were the demons and the angels, locked in a war eternal.
He finally remembered to breathe. He counted, the way that his body had learned, through the breaths that built his garden, through the images that he sent his guardian angel. And yet the battle remained before his eyes, stinging and shouting and blaring and booming even as his heart felt as though it were ready to explode.
And then one demon saw him; saw Matteo and sensed that it was being watched.
It growled, a mere shadow with eyes that glowed hatred as old as time, a drone of sound as deep as the bowels into which the damned had been cast. It roared and charged out of its lines, made for Matteo’s soul with claws bared and fangs sharp.
A veil of gold fell between the vision and shielded the boy.
The attack pierced through but briefly, and Matteo felt himself pushed back. He stumbled onto his bed, still counting, still breathing, both thanking his guardian angel and begging for her to continue her fight.
When he awakened, it was still afternoon, the sun was still sinking below the horizon, and his sister was talking on the phone outside. Her voice was low, as though she were cupping her hand onto the receiver to hold her whisper in.
And yet he was not sure if he was truly hearing his sister’s voice, or simply playing back memories of Johanna the high school student, who talked to Fr. Levi on the phone and interviewed him for her homework while their mother was sick and could not tolerate loud noises in the house. Or Johanna the college student, who practiced philosophy oral examinations with her classmate, but who did not want to risk her father hearing about how his daughter could debate about the nature of reality or the futility of marriage without love. Or Johanna the writer, who talked to her editor at midnight right before the magazine went to print.
Matteo looked at the clock on the wall and read the time. Five thirty eight.
His sister usually returned home at five thirty, give or take a few minutes. It was strange that she was on the phone so soon, although he did remember hearing the phone ringing, but at the same pitch, almost, of the growls of demons and the stinging song of angelic blades; and he did remember that her footsteps had clop-clopped up the path into the house. Or perhaps it was some other memory jolted out of his brain when he had been pushed back –
The memories faded, leaving the weight of the vision behind. Matteo knew that he had done something stupid, indeed: he had forgotten to protect himself, to breathe, to count, to speak to his guardian angel with both reverence and deliberation. His curiosity – his carelessness – were promptly rewarded with a pain in his chest that reached up and pounded into his skull
He lay in bed, resolving to awaken in a few minutes. He could afford to nap. He had already finished his examinations, besides, and he was sure his parents wouldn’t mind if he came to the table late and scruffy and still in his school uniform. Anything to make the pain go away; please dear guardian angel, make the pain go away –
When Matteo awakened, it was to the sound of his mother’s voice, garbled behind her sobs. He could only hear her, for when he opened his eyes, he could see only darkness, could barely even sense the hands that grasped his arms, could feel only his chest and his head hammering onto each other like twin rocks.
“My baby,” was all he could make out, above the din that pounded into his brain, and the boom of footsteps in the street outside, “My baby, do you know where your Ate Johanna is?”
Matteo was sure he had said something, but it sounded like a random collection of syllables, as though the words were pouring out of the side of his mouth. He could not remember what he was trying to say, only that he wanted to tell his mother that he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure, wasn’t she outside because it was nighttime, wasn’t she home already?
“My baby!” her voice was raised, much higher this time, at a pitch and volume greater than any Matteo had remembered, and one that both grated and soothed him, “My baby, what happened to you?”
Matteo was trying to answer, but his tongue felt slack; and he tried to breathe, but there seemed to be a gaping hole inside of him, as though someone had taken a giant spoon and carved out his heart. He felt nothing except someone propping him up, carrying him, taking him out of his room, through the halls, and then out into the garden where there was air that was lighter and sweeter than the stuffy, choking inside of the house. And then he felt someone holding a hand to his cheek, heard prayers that sounded as though they were coming from behind a wall of stifled sobs, sensed something cold to the touch and warm to the senses rest upon the place on his chest where his heart should have been.
He begged for his guardian angel in his head, for he still found nothing but darkness, felt nothing on his skin but a frost that tiptoed with sharp claws. And he was sure he saw his angel: a veil of gold with tiny wisps of flame, with an image she sent into his heart that oh-so-clearly showed him as a child next to Fr. Romy the very first time that he built the garden.
So, Matteo breathed and pushed the images back. He was on the path, walking with Jesus, beneath trees that shielded a warm sun, beneath branches that shook in a gentle breeze that smelled of roses and lilies. He was sitting on a stone bench made for two, slowly feeling the vines grow over him like a roof and the grass grow soft blades under him like a carpet, slowly showing his guardian angel what he had seen on the battlefield and how it made him both afraid and brave.
And he breathed; through the worries, through the unending darkness that seemed to throb even when he opened his eyes, he breathed.
She showed him what looked like a sword stained with oil, dripping with darkness; he sensed that the battle was happening still, and that she was fighting, but he, too, had to fight, for the battle would be raging for a long while. It was a battle everywhere and every-when, in places where blood spilled from human flesh meant angelic blood drawn by demonic blades, in places where human pain could not equal the otherworldly anguish of angels whose very spirits were torn out when they dared to fight for the souls they guarded. It was a battle of all time, for all time, and Matteo, a poor soul, had witnessed but a fraction of it, all because he had rushed too fast into the fray.
It was unlike Matteo to hurry. The hurrying had made him nearly insane in the onslaught of realities that had nearly overwhelmed him beyond redemption.
He sensed that she was telling him to breathe once again, to take in air with slow counts, to push out air with slow counts, to trust that his soul would heal soon.
And in that breathing, she showed him what was going on all around him. There was a battle still raging outside his gate, for a host of angels and horde of demons arrived in the wake of police cars, and their battle was fought every single day, but with the demons winning. The sight of pale angels chilled Matteo’s veins: their skins looked like old metal roofs pounded over and over by rain, their blades looked brittle, their golden light felt cold, as though they were meagre morsels of candlelight behind old, scratched glass.
The demons – they were simply shadows, blacker than the deepest night, like skies swallowing stars. They stood outside the gates, paced the street as though searching for an opening in the walls, cackled and cawed like crows walking upright, slithered amongst legs and limbs of police officers who could not move from their places, could only watch Matteo’s limp body in the arms of his father.
“That kid looks like he’s dying,” Matteo heard one policeman mumble to another, “Maybe we should take him to the hospital.”
The other policeman chuckled, so that a pair of demons giggled in reply, “Don’t fall for it, you idiot,” Matteo could barely hear the words above the skrish-skrish of demon teeth against each other, “They don’t want us searching their house, so they made their kid act up a storm. Happened before. Might as well storm the house while the whole family’s out.”
“Not a chance. Don’t feel like it.”
Matteo tried to smile, for he could almost touch the demons’ annoyance, as they tried to push into the house, but kept getting thrown back. The angels who could fight continued to walk amongst the demonic ranks, wielding swords, swinging them; the demons who remained both fought in the skirmish, and tried to penetrate the walls that seemed to shield the Castroverdes.
And still, the policemen continued to murmur to each other, never sensing how the creatures fought and groaned and battled all around them.
“How long do we have to stay?” the policeman with two demonic pets coiled around his ankles moaned, “I want a beer. I want five. Maybe they’ll send some over to Crame later.”
Matteo shuddered at the words. Camp Crame was the police headquarters, where prisoners were taken in as whole humans, but where the lucky ones came out as fractured souls and broken bones; the unlucky ones never left, or were found as masses of bones, buckets of blood and torn tissue. Crame was used to scare children into good behavior: be good or your parents will take you to Crame, don’t do anything bad or that policeman will take you to Crame and eat you. To hear of Crame spoken of so lightly made Matteo’s blood run even colder.
“I want to go home,” the other policeman sighed, “Why did the General have to send us here?”
“Anything for Ferdie,” was the retort, “You know how much he loves his nephew. And the kid really helps him out. Good boy.”
Matteo felt his spirit shake, felt his heart quake at the words, heard the name and saw his memories return in fullest force: a boy running from the house, a horde of shadows in his wake, an army of angels on their heels. And then Regret came, creeping into the house like little tendrils with sharpened ends, testing the air and looking for angels to evade so that the demons could take Matteo by his legs and wrap him completely. And within the veins of Regret was Despair, running like thick tar, speaking to Matteo in words that sounded like soothing oil, the way that Despair clothed itself in silks and pretended to be an escape.
Matteo resolved not to allow Despair to come, not to give Regret any sort of purchase on his soul. He spoke a quick prayer, asked God for guidance – and felt the tendrils and tar rush out of the house with screams as shrill as fleeing crows. An angel grew in golden light as Matteo felt his soul rebuild itself – so slowly, he felt, so slowly like a hundred years of breaths. At almost the same time, a demon growled, pawed at the street with claws that sounded like metal nails scraping against a chalkboard. It screeched in a language that felt like old syllables seething in the sunlight, then ran off as though it had been run through with flaming swords.
“Mr. Castroverde,” another policeman began, with a tone that seemed to signal suspicion of the authenticity of Matteo’s sickness.
“My son has always been sick,” a voice came, gentle, from Matteo’s father, “My wife can show you his medical records.”
There was a blast of light, pacing the garden, matching the shadows that darkened the street outside. Matteo recognized it as his father’s guardian angel: a tall, old leader who commanded angelic ranks, and who now stood with lower-ranked angels behind him. The demons reared their heads, Matteo saw, but they could come no closer, certainly not when he seemed to hear a voice praying for assistance, over and over and over.
His angel showed the image of his mother kneeling next to him. No celestial hosts could flee from the prayers of a mother; fervent and faithful in form and substance, no mother’s prayer would go unheeded.
“There is no need for that, sir,” the police officer sounded near, as though he were standing at the gate; and far away, as though something were holding him back, and he was frightened, oh-so-afraid to step farther into the house, “We’re so sorry that we interrupted. Are you sure you don’t need us to take your son to the hospital?”
“It is only a seizure – he will be ok soon,” Matteo’s father answered, voice clear as tiny bells, “He had exams today so he’s under a lot of stress, and he’s applying for college. He’s ok. We’ll take care of him.”
The voice was forcing down both fear and frustration. Matteo had never felt his father hold him so closely, had never felt the warmth keep him so near. The boy breathed, felt something in his chest knit itself into the shape of his heart, felt the heart beat to the rhythm of his mother’s prayer, felt the heart enveloped by what felt like hands that warmed it into peace.
And yet, Crame, and Ferdie, and Johanna – the names played in Matteo’s head, tempted him to abandon the hope that he had worked so hard to build. The names seemed to have their own weapons, seemed to growl against the air and battle against his angel; but the names were silenced, beneath the prayers from his mother, beneath the loud flashes of light that swept across the garden, beneath the shrieks of demons driven from the fray.
The cold something on his chest grew ever more distinct, and Matteo finally recognized what it was: a cross, given to him by Fr. Exo for his birthday, which the family kept on the altar in the house.
Matteo kept breathing, finally felt that he had closed his eyes, saw that his guardian angel was telling him to be strong, for she would be with him, but she could not fight for him alone. He breathed his gratitude back, breathed out an apology for his recklessness, breathed out an apology for not protecting himself and therefore endangering her as well.
The voices outside spoke above the images.
“All right, sir,” the police officer was calm now, “I suggest that you call your family doctor. I can leave a few officers to pick him up and bring him home. You just have to tell us where he lives.”
“Thank you,” Matteo’s father was hesitant, and yet he had to keep up a front of what sounded like agreement, “We’ll call him if my son doesn’t wake up.”
“We can stay here outside and wait.”
It is not yet time, the words played in Matteo’s head. Breathe, little soul, for you have seen what no human should see in their lifetime, and you cannot mend the damage upon your spirit by venturing out into the battle once again.
“Please call us as well when you hear from your daughter,” were the last words Matteo heard from the police officers, as the gate closed with a clang, and as the battle moved away, farther down the road to where a single police car was parked. He could still feel the demons growling, howling; could sense the angels walk around him in a protective ring; and could see the images his angel sent, of how he was not yet ready, how he had to keep on breathing and praying, how reinforcements would be coming and he would be ready then – but he had to think of himself first, because faith always won over fear, and the truest faith could burn away the demons of worry, the way that the most heartfelt of prayers could send Regret and Despair back to the bowels of hell.
And then, silence, the strangest kind, the kind that throbbed with trembling fingers, the kind that made whispers sound like shouts.
“I don’t know where they are,” Matteo heard his mother say to his father, her voice so low, it barely stirred the tiny pocket of air his parents shared, “They didn’t leave any messages; no notes, no letters. Johanna’s room is empty. She took everything, every single notebook, all her clothes.”
Matteo’s father gasped, sobbed; the boy felt his father’s brow rest on his temple, felt the man’s arms hold him even closer. “Where is she?” he said, not in the way that a patriarch would demand that a daughter return home for a scolding, but in the way that a father would cry for a beloved, missing child, “Where would she go?”
“I don’t know,” Matteo’s mother’s voice sounded like anguished winds in the garden of Matteo and his angel, “But I am so thankful they didn’t search the house!”
Matteo could feel his guardian angel smile, could sense the other guardian angels giving each other what felt like a celestial high five, for lack of a better description. He did not know what they were celebrating, for the police were still outside, Johanna and Yaya were missing, and Ferdie… oh God, Ferdie.
Do not fight yet, the images spoke yet again, moving through the garden like a sea of soothing sunlight coming through the trees. Do not awaken. Sit first. Breathe. You need to heal. You cannot serve God properly when your soul is broken. Be patient, little one, the way that you have always been patient with your thoughts.
“Did they say why they’re looking for her?” Matteo’s mother asked, voice bouncing against the skin of her hands, “Did they say who sent them?”
Matteo’s father did not make any answer, but simply sobbed into his son’s hair, pressed the cross onto the boy’s chest, and spoke out what sounded like a confession, reparation, atonement. Matteo could not hear the words clearly, but they seemed to come to life in the images that he and his guardian angel were now being given, and from somewhere in the garden of the boy’s imaginings. It was an apology for pushing Johanna into places she should not have found herself had her father been more discerning.
“Is this Ferdie?” Matteo’s mother said, faintly, and yet with a tone that felt as though it were being hammered into her husband’s skull, “Is Ferdie behind all this?”
Matteo could feel his father shaking his head. There were words sputtering out, something about the university, how Johanna should not have taught writing, should not have gone to such a large school that allowed its students to rebel, should not have been allowed to be too free.
“Don’t blame Johanna,” came out flatly in reply. And yet Matteo saw the tears running down his mother’s cheeks, could sense her guardian angel lay down its many arms and manacles, embrace her like a blanket of golden light, “Don’t you dare blame our daughter when she was doing what every single person in this country should be doing right now.”
Matteo heard his father sob. Even the man’s guardian angel had moved out of the lines of guardians, knelt next to him, and enveloped him in what looked like silvery wings. Husband and wife cried together, but Matteo could sense the anger between them. The angels were holding their wards, but there were little demons hopping around, trying to find an opening, cackling against the shields that the angels cast. Matteo prayed, breathed, felt his mother stand up.
“I am calling Dr. Santos,” she said, voice still without emotion, and yet muffled behind tears, “I am not losing another baby.”
Matteo could feel his father nod, “Be careful,” he spoke through his sobs.
His mother was silent, almost indifferent. Matteo’s guardian angel was not as perturbed with the turn of events, but reminded him to rest, to show about what he hoped for, what he dreamed about, what he wanted to see in a world that was increasingly darkened by the spirits of those who believed they were enlightened, in a world where there were so few pockets of genuine light that truly warmed the corners of the human imagination. He felt himself rest against his father’s chest, felt his guardian angel smile at him, sensed that she was still fighting a battle at the same time but was also at his side and watching the images he sent.
Somehow, in that garden, and in the world without, he fell asleep. There were no dreams, no nightmares, no interruptions; only a consciousness of being in another world, and yet being safe. Matteo felt that something inside him was weaving itself back into being, as though he had been broken and made whole, made stronger again. He knew he had heard his sister describe the feeling many times before, as a university graduate, as a teacher, as a writer: something would shatter him, the way that a cannonball did to the leg of one nobleman who was once a vain soldier and would one day be a saint; something would break him into pieces, but he would be made whole again, made new in a world that had to be set afire.
The words mingled in his head, the way that birds would coo at each other when they came home to roost at dusk, the way that the tree branches in his garden would rustle together when the dawn rose like blood in the east. The syllables did not confuse him, did not confound his senses; he simply felt that he was resting, that there was something carrying him to safety, away from the battle that had so torn his soul and spirit, into a place where his heart would learn the truth of what had transpired. He found the old Matteo returning: peaceful, deliberate, discerning, waiting, neither electrified beyond comprehension nor overexcited to learn new things.
When he awakened, he was in a room that was not his own: he could hear chirping and chirruping outside a window that seemed high up in the trees; he could feel the warm sun dancing through glass; he could even hear a clock on the wall ticking seconds, in rhythm to conversations filtered through a wooden floor.
He said goodbye to his angel. He had been in the garden for centuries, he felt. She called him little soul, laughed, shook her golden veil, as though the smile at his naivete and remind him what a babe he was in the ways of the universe.
And finally, Matteo opened his eyes.
He was in a room in the House of the Jesuits, he knew, for he recognized the portraits of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier on one wall, and the collection of Jesuit books lining the shelves next to his bed. On one side, he saw Fr. Genio, seated on a chair, head bowed to the ground, rosary in one hand. On his other side, he saw Fr. Romy reading from his red book, sprinkling Holy Water all around Matteo’s bed, and then pausing when he saw the boy awake.
“Oh my God – Genio!” Fr. Romy’s gasp was louder than the whispered words, “Genio, he’s all right!”
Fr. Genio sprang up, smiled, took Matteo’s cheeks in both his hands, and kissed the boy on the forehead. In that split second of joy, Matteo saw how tear-stained the man’s face was, how wrinkled the eyes, how careworn his skin, as though he had scraped sandpaper on it and worked in the sun for days.
“I’ll go tell Exodo,” Fr. Genio suddenly had a jump in his step as he rushed out.
Matteo wanted to turn his head, but felt his neck stiffen, protesting movement. He heard Fr. Romy tut-tut, correcting him in a mix of remonstration and pity.
“Not yet,” his two words were at the exact same pitch as that of Matteo’s angel, “You’re badly injured, even if Horacio and Anita say that you’re completely fine.”
It took a while for Matteo to understand who Horacio and Anita were; and when he remembered his doctors, he also remembered his parents.
“I know,” Fr. Romy spoke even before Matteo could move his lips, “There’s much to talk about, but we have to go slow, the way we’ve always gone slow with you and allowed you to discern before dispensing. I need you to be patient now, Matteo.”
The boy was thankful for the interruption. He was trying to speak, but the merest breath scraped his lungs, and the single syllable he nearly set forth gashed hard against his tongue. He knew he had the power of speech, but it was too painful to even think of talking; and the look on Fr. Romy’s face made the act of asking questions quite the sacrifice.
The priest’s brow wrinkled, but his mouth pursed as he propped Matteo up and helped the boy drink water. Fr. Romy was quiet, but in those few seconds of kindness, Matteo sensed how the priest was trembling to tell Matteo what had transpired, while dreading to ask what Matteo had done for him to fall into a spiritual trap injurious enough to put him in what looked to be decades of pain.
“How long?” Matteo finally found the strength to ask, when the water took away the sand from his throat.
“You’ve been – a very different kind of unconscious for a week,” Fr. Romy answered, sighing, as he laid Matteo back down on the bed, “But you’ve been eating.”
Matteo was not sure if he wanted to laugh, but out half a giggle came, shaking the insides of his cheeks.
“I’m glad to see that you have your sense of humor,” the priest sounded amused, but exhausted, “Yes – you’ve been eating. We would sometimes ask you to sit up and eat, and you would listen to us, you’d obey us without opening your eyes. We’d just tell you to open your mouth and chew and swallow, and you would do it; but you’d go back to bed again.”
Matteo felt a smile tug one side of his lips; but the other side felt numb, as though he had not moved his face in a long time.
“Jun helped you exercise while you were lying down,” Fr. Romy himself looked as though he were ready to laugh, “He said you were so quiet and peaceful, exercising your limbs was like trying to wake a child who refused to go to school.”
The laugh came out fully this time, and Matteo allowed it to escape him, like a storm that washed away all his worries for but a few moments. Fr. Romy joined him with the slightest of chuckles. Any soul less discerning would have begged Fr. Romy for more information, perhaps even jumped out, sprung free from the bedclothes, demanded to see his family. Matteo felt both innocent and ancient, from where he lay, and from how he felt as he watched Fr. Romy. He knew only that he needed to wait, that waiting was healing, that his patience was like a balm to his inner wounds and a needle and thread to knit his heart to life.
In all the time he had spoken to his guardian angel in the garden, he never once imagined asking her to give all the details of what had occurred in the outside world. He worried for everyone, of course; but the sight of the celestial battle had completely drained him of all energy to ask questions, and the near attack of a demon on his soul had completely pushed out all his will to protest the need for rest.
“How are you feeling now, Matteo?” Fr. Romy asked, finally closing the red book, setting it aside, and bringing his chair closer to the edge of the bed, “Can you talk about what happened?”
A warm breeze caressed Matteo’s cheek, and he knew, almost instantly, that it was his guardian angel urging him to tell Fr. Romy everything. The words to describe the vision, what had occurred, and what Matteo had seen in his week with his guardian angel – the words were crowding into his imagination, running a race onto his tongue, fighting to be the first to be sent forth. Matteo spoke, therefore, in the only way he knew to calm himself.
He nodded, looked straight into Fr. Romy’s eyes, and began.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” he felt his heart actually beat, his lungs expand with the breath he took, “My last confession was one month ago.”
Fr. Romy had been smiling earlier, but the words lowered a veil of gray over his countenance. He sighed once again, took his stole from the bedside table, crossed himself, and then laid a cross on Matteo’s brow.
“Continue, my child.”