“Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was small, with big eyes that took in the whole world, with hair that was always neat and tidy, with clothes that smelled like soap and bubbles. He smiled at everyone, spoke politely to his elders, was friendly to his friends, ignored his enemies.”
The girl stopped reading.
“I know it’s not the most profound description, Sir,” she addressed the man before her, “But I couldn’t say more about the boy. He isn’t really that big a character.”
She avoided the eyes of everyone else in the room. She kept her gaze on her sheet, blinking back the low light of approaching dusk. Outside, students were running off to catch a jeepney home, or talking about their oral examinations with far more profundity than they could muster, or simply walking. The footfalls were louder in the basement classroom, where the lights were always bright, but unable to fight the oncoming darkness.
And under that bright light, in a circle, were students. They were seated on the floor, or on their desks; one was poised rather precariously on a rickety, creaking table that had seen the last of its use. The boys stole snicker-laced glances at the potentially-table-wrecking student, as though waiting for the wooden legs to finally give way and bring some laughter to the classroom.
And outside the circle was the professor, leaning on his desk. It was he to whom the last words were addressed, and it was he who straightened up and looked at the girl from across the room.
“He’s not a big character if you’re counting lines,” he spoke, eyes still on his copy of the girl’s homework, where he had scribbled comments, “But he’s one of the main characters, if you read the text and the text under it.”
The girl took a breath, paused, and looked up, “But someone just mentions him, and then we move on and we go to -” she looked at a pile of stapled sheets glowing with highlighted text, “Him. Arturo.”
She pointed at a boy across the room. He was seated in the chair nearest their professor, and was holding another copy of the girl’s stapled sheets. His copy overflowed with notes, post-its, comments, and highlights. His eyes seemed to be full of the text – but instead of simply nodding at the girl, he spoke the words on the sheet.
“Good day, Madame. I hope you and your son have had your breakfast? The fiesta will begin early, and I am sure you will both have much to eat today, but please have some breakfast before leaving your house.”
On the tongue of any other person, the words would have sounded like a mere greeting, and a stilted one, at that. But as the boy spoke them, he seemed to take on the character, to don the air of the play and bring the stage into the classroom. The footfalls and chattering outside seemed to be pushed farther away; the campus seemed to be cloaked in another universe; the only reality was in that room, where the boy had just spoken, and where his classmates looked at him in awe.
As usual, their professor probably thought, his free hand gesturing to the young man.
“As John said,” the professor seemed to be holding back a compliment, “The son is mentioned yet again, and you,” the professor pointed to the girl, “Are standing where?”
“On the porch, Sir,” she answered.
“My porch!” the girl laughed, one hand to one cheek. Around her was faint laughter, as the class eased out of the tension of a stage brought to life, and as the world outside grew loud once again, “My porch! I’m on my porch. My son is inside. I am waiting for the fiesta. The young farmer comes to my door and asks after us. It is my house, my property. I ask my neighbor if she has seen my son’s toy, the farmer asks me if we have eaten, and all my neighbors come and talk until we get to the end.”
The professor cleared his throat.
“Not the end,” the girl spoke even slower now, “Only the beginning of the revolution.”
The class was silent, but most of the students nodded. Only the student seated on the rickety table did not move, as though in fear that anything he did would send him rolling to the floor.
“Good. Thank you, Tai,” the professor finally spoke, further drawing out the air of tension from the room, “That was the spirit of the homework. I want you all to describe each other, and I want you to own the story. Don’t own the stage. This is not a stage. That stage is incidental; the story is yours. You need to take it as your own. Take it as your reality. Every word you speak is reality. Every person on that stage is real. Every person that you mention is real. Your son,” he turned to Tai again, “Is real.”
Tai nodded. She met eyes with John, who, like the rest of the class, had all attention focused on the professor. John had already shed the persona of the farmer, whose lines he had spoken earlier.
“Now, Tai,” the professor gestured to Tai, “Tell me about your son. And don’t read from the homework.”
Tai covered her mouth, closed her eyes momentarily, collected her words. Then, after a deep breath that showed her gathering confidence, she spoke.
“Once upon a time,” her voice was lower, fuller, “There was a little boy. He woke up every morning to his mother’s smile. His father had died many years ago after working in the fields for too long. When this little boy grew up, he would be a farmer too. But for now, he was a little boy listening to the stories of his mother, playing with his wooden toys, and running around just like all the other boys. He had big eyes and neat hair because his mother always kept him clean and tidy, and because he was always curious about the world. He was polite. The neighbors liked him. He loved eating. He loved fiestas. His mother always brought him to church. But today, his mother kept him at home and told him not to go out. It was the fiesta, and he wanted to play with his friends, but his mother told him to stay, because this was not going to be a fun fiesta.”
“Fun fiesta,” someone echoed. Another student giggled in response.
The professor held up his hand, then pointed a finger at one student, “Tell me about your son.”
The student, a young man barely out of his teens, winced, “Er,” he began, as he shook off what appeared to be his personality, and tried to wiggle into a persona, “My son is out in the fields?”
“And?” The professor interposed, giving the boy a nod.
“And,” the student stammered, eyes wandering everywhere, “He is working today. And – he will probably be hungry, so he will go and get food later at the fiesta. He will – go see the guards about – about food.”
The professor’s eyes narrowed, “You don’t seem convinced.”
“Er,” the boy, apparently on impulse, opened a notebook.
“Hold it!” The professor interrupted him, “Close that notebook and look me in the eye as you talk.”
The boy’s swallow shook the classroom air.
“Go ahead,” the professor spoke, slower this time, “Don’t be afraid.”
The young man cleared his throat, “I – I have a son,” he resumed, one glance at John, before his eyes met the professor’s, “And this boy – his mother had a hard time with him.”
The professor put down the sheets of paper he had been holding, “Go on,” he urged.
“My son,” the student obeyed, with another loud swallow, “He just wouldn’t come out when his mother was giving birth to him. He was probably kicking and screaming and cursing and maybe even laughing because everyone in that room was praying for him, and he just couldn’t find his own way out. But he calmed down and he got out. And when he got out, he lived his life the way he lived in the womb. He was always doing what he wanted, and he was always mad when I told him to stop, to think, to listen to his parents. He studied – but he would always stay up and write things that had nothing to do with school. I would tell him not to stay up, because he had to help in the fields in the morning, and he would just shrug and write. And that might be good, because I cannot read, and I cannot write, but my son can. Last week, I told him to study, but he said he wanted to work in the fields, because he and his friends found it – interesting.”
Something seemed to catch in the boy’s throat. Everyone paused; no one breathed louder than the scratch of fingernails on paper. Even John, who seemed to capture the entire room earlier, was watching and listening closely.
“His friends,” the young man breathed, exhaling tension into the room, “His friends are older than him, but he is smarter than they are. And I think they want him to be friends with them because they can see that he is educated, that he can plan things well, that he knows how to talk to people, to calm them down and to bring them together. And I cannot stop him because he has always been like this. He is strong. He knows what he wants. He has always spoken about freedom from our oppressors, and he has always spoken about education for all, and he has always been strong and defiant and rebellious. But he is my son. He is my son and I am his father and I do not want to live to see the day that I should cover his dead body with dust!”
The words came, in torrents of emotions that rode on the silence, on a wave of anger and resentment that broke through the unease, and smashed into the walls of the room – where the shards of rage and flame bounced into the hearts of all who listened. There seemed to be smoke, a mist that clouded everyone’s view of the speaker. And when it cleared, they found him sobbing.
“There!” the professor pointed at the young man, “That’s what I’m looking for! That’s the story!”
There was a smattering of applause, a scatter of wider, brighter smiles. John was no exception: he clapped louder than the rest, his mouth still hanging open.
“I see we shall have a new John Saregipto soon!” the professor clapped John on the shoulder, “Too bad the original’s graduating!’
“He’s going to be his own man,” John replied, only to the professor, and under the noise of the class as everyone else congratulated the boy, “You’ll be fine, Sir, even without me.”
The professor’s eyes watered, “I’ve heard that from all my actors, and it’s never easy,” he gave John another nod, “But we’ve got a whole summer to train them, so please leave your mark.”
The professor dismissed the class soon after. The boy who had burst into tears lingered awhile, to tell John what a wonderful artist he was and how he had influenced the boy to try out writing, acting, painting, singing, playing the flute, and even sculpture, and all because there was a John Saregipto who had tried it all first. It was not the first time that any freshman had approached John; John was young and accomplished and well known across several campuses as a scholar and artist. He was but a student, and John did not want to bask in the praise too early, nor too deeply.
There were also far more important things than praise. There was, for example, a world of shadows.
John observed Tai, giving himself less time to dwell on the freshman’s words. She had started stage acting at the same time that he did, and he knew how she approached her craft. She saw it as a stage on which to plant herself as a newcomer, and into which she poured research so that she would know what drove the characters onward.
John, on the other hand, became the character. He saw the reality in which the character operated. He disappeared into another world, another reality, another age, another era, another soul altogether. And he sometimes talked to the character.
It all began when he first won a part in his elementary school play. He was Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he earned praise for his mischief and song, his sprightliness and fire. He had learned how to do it all in his backyard, where he had watched the elves bicker and argue with the dwarves. He imitated their jumps and growls, their snarls and titters. For some reason, they ignored him; they knew he could see them, but they left him alone.
In high school, it was the souls he spoke with. They talked about their lives, connecting themselves to the characters in whose spaces he breathed, and telling John all about their emotions, their motivations, their goals. They would nod when he got it right in rehearsals, and shake their heads sadly when he appeared too shallow, too unprepared, too divorced from the character. And on opening night, they would stand in the wings and applaud him.
He hardly talked back; he simply listened. He could not, would not dare acknowledge his gift as his own. He always remembered the souls who would come to him and guide him, his band of supernatural directors and language coaches. They deserved the praise, but always asked to remain anonymous; John obeyed, and simply prayed for them whenever he found himself in church.
In the last few weeks, however, he also saw new souls next to Tai. But unlike his friends who had helped him in his art, who accepted his prayers, and who clapped when he represented them well, Tai’s souls were darker, drearier, angrier. They ignored him; and once, a soul snarled at him when he prayed for it. The latest one was a mother who glared at every student in the room as Tai spoke, and who stared at the professor as the man asked Tai for a more detailed story of her son.
John watched Tai and the soul leave the room, his thoughts going in her direction. The praises from the freshman were barely acknowledged.
“So how’s the cast?” the professor asked John, when everyone else had left.
John had to climb out of his thoughts. He had half the mind to run to Tai and ask her if she had taken a page out of his book and contacted her own souls. Part of him thought that he did not want to hear her answer.
“They’re – good,” John began, gathering his things, “We’re rehearsing tonight. We’ll go through the first act. I’ll block it and I’ll talk – check with the cast. I’ll check with the cast and see what everyone thinks. And we can show you the blocking while we read from the script tomorrow.”
The professor smiled, “Good!” he spoke as he returned chairs to their proper places in the classroom, “I’m glad you took on the job this semester. It’s good training for you. More time for papers for me, good training for you, and we’re all happy.”
Truth be told, John was having the headache of a lifetime. He had to juggle his examinations and senior schoolwork with a play – and the stories of about twenty souls, all of them trying to coach the cast, John the assistant director, and even the set designers. For the first time, he had a full cast of supernatural creatures all waiting their turn to be heard. He nearly forgot to go to his exams one day when one particularly eager soul cornered him in the theater and told him to tell his cast members not to be too loud when they were not rehearsing.
“I’ll try, sir,” John had made the Sign of the Cross then, so that the soul was calmed somewhat, “But please help me, too. Pray for my examinations.”
John had aced that exam. His souls had been kind and had indeed prayed for him. But something told John that Tai’s new friends were not as accommodating.
The professor was watching him closely, “Is everything ok?”
“Yes, Sir,” John replied, with no acting necessary, “I’m just exhausted.”
“Of course you are,” the professor packed his things, “Can you still do rehearsals tonight? Maybe you can start it an hour before I get in tomorrow. Rest. You just finished a good chunk of your exams and you need time to recharge. I don’t want to see you crawling to school.”
John laughed lightly, and gave the answer that came as easily as breathing, “The stage calms me down, sir. I’d rather be on it than at home and itching to be.”
The professor had also heard the response many times before, “All right,” he waved the boy away, “But I’m calling the cast and telling them that you can’t stay beyond 8 PM. Deal?”
“But we can’t get through the whole first act then!” John’s eyebrows knit together as he imagined the twenty souls protesting and shouting above his cast’s whining.
The professor’s stare was harder, “Yes you can – just get down to business and don’t let anyone or anything hold you back,” and, with another wave of his hand to urge John to get out of the classroom, “You’re my best actor this year, and I know that you know how to get the job done in hours. So get to it. Shoo!”
John laughed. He had worked with the professor for four years now, and he would miss the man. He had spent hours in training, learning lines, knowing how to teach acting, and, somehow, taming the voices of the souls that continued to speak to him. Every play was the work of thousands, it seemed; every play spoke from across boundaries both defined and invisible.
John seemed to be the gatekeeper of the borders.
He was scheduling that night’s practice in his head (only three hours to get through the first act?) and he had already planned his responses to everyone, from the humans (At least you’ll have time to study for your finals tonight) to the souls (Don’t worry, we still have time, and I promise to pray for you). He was ready to head straight to the theater to write down the schedule and get the cast together, when he nearly bumped into someone.
“Sorry!” he said at once – and realized that it was not human.
It was the mother, the one leering and jeering and snarling next to Tai in the classroom. She was standing in the middle of the sidewalk now, and looking straight at John, as though daring him to approach.
And, farther on, there was Tai, running in the direction of the main campus. John could hardly see her; the afternoon sun was in his eyes, and the mother was trying to block his way.
“Please,” John murmured, “Please let me through. I have work to do. I won’t talk to Tai if you don’t want me to, but I need to see my cast. If you have a story, I can hear it. Just let me pray -”
John had barely finished the sentence, much less his sign of the cross, when the mother growled. For a moment, he saw a beast in her place: a wolf, walking upright, with eyes burning fire into the afternoon, with dark hair bristling in anger and protectiveness and rage and blood. In another blink, she was farther out, running after Tai, and no longer in John’s way.
John finally made the sign of the cross. He needed to talk to Tai, or to a priest, or to someone who would understand what he was going through. There was only one person on campus who was privy to John’s strange abilities, but there were rehearsals and those could not wait. John resolved to contact Fr. Matteo when he got home.
He spent the next three hours indeed with the cast and the twenty waiting souls. Thankfully, the humans onstage were cooperative. Blocking ended early, and everyone had memorized their lines. The souls were quiet, and hardly spoke to John, save to greet him before taking their seats in the theater.
There was something brewing, it appeared, as some of the students looked uneasily at their copies of the script, and as others checked their phones. John was used to their behavior, but there was too much silence in between rehearsing blocking, and he could not help fidgeting in his seat. He dared not attribute the quick blocking to his own managerial abilities (if any, his self-esteem chuckled).
The last scene had been blocked, and it was but a quarter until eight. John stood up, quietly thanked the souls near him (even if they had said nothing at all), and spoke to the cast now gathered onstage.
“Thank you, guys, for still coming tonight,” he raised his hand in what he meant to be a wave, which he hoped the souls waiting the wings could see, “Sir will watch us tomorrow, and I’m really happy that he called in an 8 pm deadline. Everything looks really good.”
“We love deadlines,” a girl piped up.
“Heck, we love cramming!” A boy retorted, prompting the cast to laugh. Even a few souls next to John joined the students in hearty agreement.
“Good work, John! Good job!” Another boy called out, so that the cast applauded.
John shook his head, almost tempted to gesture to the seats nearest him and force his friends to acknowledge the invisible coaches and directors. Instead, he smiled, thanked everyone, and sat down to gather his things.
“There’s been another suicide attempt this week,” a soul behind John whispered, its breath warm on his arm. John checked that none of the cast was looking at him. When he saw that the stage was empty, he turned to the soul and found that it was an old man, the one who liked to talk about set design.
“How did you know?” John whispered back, cloaking his words as he shut his bag with a loud click.
“We hear things from the students,” the old man replied after what seemed to be a long time ruminating on the answer. John wondered if the old man was holding something back, or simply lying, “It’s just a rumor, but it’s traveling fast.”
John shook his head, “That’s the third this week,” he mumbled, “I just wish they’d find something to get their minds off things. Maybe act in a play or dance.”
“Or study,” the old laughed, and then laughed louder when John glared at him.
John nodded to the souls as they left, gliding or walking back into the walls. Only the old man stayed by his side, and even walked him to the exit.
“Be careful,” the old man warned him.
“I will be,” John said, almost carelessly.
“No,” was the firm, almost angry reply that made him turn around and face the soul, “You do not understand. You need prayers now, and I will pray for you. But please be careful.”
“Yes, sir,” John felt the blood drain from his fingers and toes, “Yes sir, I will.”
The soul nodded, then melted into the darkness.
John had been hungry since he had set foot in the theater. Crawling into bed was next on his list. But tonight, he rushed out of the building, down the street, and into the road that led to the seminary. Night had fallen, and there were fewer cars on the road, but John feared nothing. Or, more precisely, he feared what would happen if he did not seek help.
He was ready to fall to his knees at the reception desk, if not for the young priest who ran to his side and assisted him into a chair.
“Are you all right, John?” Thankfully, the young priest was familiar with him, “Do you need help?”
John took a deep breath, and smiled as the priest gave him a glass of water, “I only need to talk to Fr. Matteo,” he gasped, feeling the strain in his calves, “Thank you so much, Father! I’m sorry for intruding. I know it’s late.”
The young priest brushed the boy’s worries away, “I’ll go get him. Stay here. Have you had dinner yet?”
John managed a weak smile. He was about to refuse what he knew would be an offer of food, but it was too late.
“I’ll get Matteo, and then I’m taking you both to the guests’ dining hall. Matteo has not eaten dinner either, so I hope he’ll cave if he has company,” the priest strode off, “Stay where you are.”
Half an hour later, John was in the guests’ dining hall, sitting across Fr. Matteo, and finishing a meal of rice, fried chicken, vegetables, and even a brownie. The young priest who had met him at the reception insisted on feeding him sweets “to get your color back – you’re whiter than rice now!”
“Fr. Caros’ family owns restaurants, and he used to meet everyone at the door and check on them while they ate,” Fr. Matteo said, as he and John cleared their plates, “He knows starvation and fatigue when he sees it.”
“He’s really nice,” was all that John could say, as all his worries flooded back. The words poured out of him immediately, as though he had needed only food to get him started. He told Fr. Matteo all about Tai, and the dark souls, and the mother who turned into a wolf. He even talked about the suicide attempts on campus, and the soul that had warned him to be careful.
Fr. Matteo simply nodded, took sips of water, and listened. John and he had had many conversations like this before, over coffee or tea, after exams or before Fr. Matteo headed off to an exorcism. The conversations helped John center himself, humble himself, see himself as an instrument, and not as a mere spectator. Tonight, as John spoke, he grew calmer, and Fr. Matteo clearly saw when it was his turn to speak.
“I expected as much,” Fr. Matteo said, voice low. A group of priests walked in just then, with their guest seminarians. The noise bounced off the walls, and it became difficult to talk, much less listen. Fr. Matteo nodded to John, signaling that they should take their plates to the kitchen and talk outside.
“I’ll walk you back to your dorm,” Fr. Matteo said, as they walked out of the seminary, “I need to get some air, too.”
“I’m so sorry, Father,” John said, swinging his bag higher on his shoulders.
Fr. Matteo brushed the boy’s concerns away, “This is my job, and I’m glad to do it.”
They knew better than to talk within earshot of the seminary. Neither wanted the priests to worry about the students, and both wanted some air to clear their lungs and get blood flowing back into their legs. John walked alongside Fr. Matteo, as they made their way back up to the main street and headed for the boys’ dormitory.
“I’ve seen signs on campus,” Fr. Matteo spoke, as they walked under the shade of trees rustling in the night breeze, “There seem to be more demons today, except where the seraphic guard is. But – I have never seen an old woman. This is different.”
“Maybe I just see her as an old woman,” John said, trying to strengthen his voice.
“Maybe,” Fr. Matteo waited for a jogger to get past them before talking again, “I’m surprised that it’s gotten so near the seraphic guard though. You really should be careful.”
“Yes, father,” John felt a knot tighten in his throat.
“She was working close to where you were this afternoon,” Fr. Matteo slowed his walk, and glanced at the football field on the opposite side of the road, “I saw her guard there and – down there,” he pointed in the direction of the classroom where John had been a few hours before, “She walked to the dance studio and then taught there while you were in class. I passed by her seraphs several times. They were – busy.”
John knew what Fr. Matteo meant, and he knew who Fr. Matteo was talking about. He had worked with Agnes (formally Ma’am Agnes) briefly on a small student project, and he was acquainted with many of her students. Who could have known that the much-loved hyperactive professor was also guarded by an army of Seraphim? Even Agnes could not say why, but according to Fr. Matteo, her angels watched her closely and were very fond of her.
“Ma’am should be afraid too, I guess,” John spoke as they turned a corner and walked toward the steps leading to his dormitory, “If one of them can get that near her guard-”
“She’s very well protected, nevertheless,” Fr. Matteo interrupted him, “They’ve been fighting for her for decades now. The fights are bloodier, but she’s still protected. You, on the other hand, have a lone warrior.”
“And lots of souls,” was John’s pointed reply.
“That live on another dimension and that cannot fight for you,” was Fr. Matteo’s equally pointed riposte, “They can pray for you, but those prayers need your cooperation. Don’t attempt to get near your friend for now. When will you see her next?”
“On Thursday, Father,” John answered.
“I’ll stop by your classroom then,” Fr. Matteo said, absently, as though calculating schedules in his head, “I need to talk to Agnes about something anyway. If you have time, maybe you can join us.”
“Oh,” John grinned, “She hardly knows me, Father. Does she know -”
“That you can see ghosts? No,” Fr. Matteo cut the boy off, “But she’s seen and heard stranger things in her life. You’ll be no different.”
John thought for a moment, “All right,” he propped his bag higher up his shoulder, “If I don’t need to go help at rehearsals, I’ll join you.”
Fr. Matteo nodded. Without ceremony, he laid both his hands on John’s head. The boy bowed.
“Protect your son, John Saregipto, Oh Lord, from the darkness that threatens him. Keep him safe, watch him always, and never let him out of Your sight. Let your Most Holy Mother guard him, and let the Holy Spirit guide him.”
“Amen,” John rejoined. It was the same prayer every time he and Fr. Matteo parted ways. He felt lighter, refreshed, even, as he ran to his room.
John slept soundly that night, attended all his classes the next day, and even said hello to a Ma’am Agnes fresh out of her dance classes. She wished him luck on his last round of exams before walking off to her office. John still wondered why she needed an angelic guard as highly trained as the Seraphim. She probably needed a stronger immune system now, as she passed student after student and received embraces in return.
And, strangely, John never heard from any of the souls on campus. He figured they were giving him space. He was thankful for the silence, as he raced out of classes, took a quick lunch, and headed straight for the theater – only to see the air before him suddenly swimming with black tar.
Ice ran through John’s veins as he watched the black tar travel past him, across the park, and into a nearby building. And there, standing by entrance, was the mother, flickering into her wolf form as the tar oozed closer to where she stood. It was five in the afternoon, and students were pouring out into the school grounds; no one saw the storm brewing in their midst.
John ran in the opposite direction, opening the clasps on his bag as he did so. He prayed that the mother would not follow him, prayed that he would not be seen, prayed that his phone would work.
He dialed Fr. Matteo’s private mobile. He did not wait for the priest to get through his greetings, politeness be damned.
“Father!” John tried not to scream, as students walked by him, and as he tried to find a corner where he could talk, “Father, you have to come to campus now. Something’s happening. The old woman’s here and it’s getting really dark.”
There was a beat, and Fr. Matteo’s voice came crisp over the line, “I’m on my way,” and, in a voice that John did not dare disobey, “Go back to your dorm now, and don’t leave until I tell you to.”
John was about to open his mouth to ask about the rehearsal he had to supervise.
“This is not good, John, so get out now,” Fr. Matteo’s voice crackled with static ,”Get out before they try to follow you.”
With trembling legs, and muttered prayers, John ran all the way back to his dorm. And as he ran up the stairs to his room, he heard the scream of horror and pain thunder and roar across the campus.