This is a novella I wrote shortly after completing a personal account of my school trip to Lourdes (posted in “Essays”). It set off a train of thought about the nature of faith, miracles and religious claims, and those were the themes I wanted to develop into a fiction. As a consequence, The Miracles is the least caustic I have ever been when writing about Catholicism. Father Eugenio is far more charismatic and charming than I initially intended!
The Miracles by Greg Jameson
The grass glinted with dew on both sides of the dirt road, and streaky clouds offered little barrier to the sun that gained in strength and height with each passing minute.
This did not cheer Fabio, whose eyes, so recently clamped shut in the succour of sleep, were now open and unblinking as if in paralysis. The grassy banks on either side of him, running up steep hills fenced behind wire, missed his still sleeping senses. There was one further sensation, and that was pain.
First there was the ache in his feet, which had walked too far. Then, he felt the dampness of the dew, the moisture that had not settled on the grass, but had instead pervaded his cotton clothing whilst he slept, and which now ate away at his joints – elbows, wrists, knees and ankles, and made the beauty of nature before him not the first thought to cross over his mind that morning. In truth, any hope of such a feeling had long since evaporated, like the water from the streams under the sun had done in the intense heat of the summer now fading, and which only yesterday announced its return, pouring against the top of his head unrelentingly all afternoon. The experience had made him sleepy, and his head had ached so much he was almost sick as they climbed up the finer rocks that had forced a small hill into the terrain, until wet feet from a moment of unsure footing crossing a stream had distracted him instead with blisters.
Sleep had cured some, but by no means all of his complaints; but the boils on his back and the rash on his chest, which merged into purply blotches somewhere in the no man’s land of his sides; and the constant itching, which his fingernails could never cure, and which in turn created only excoriations on the surface of his skin, were no better. No worse either, but certainly no better. This was why he stood away from the wire fence, not reclining as his feet begged him to do, but hunching his shoulders instead to minimize the contact of his damp clothing against the skin of his torso.
It was the same routine as the last few mornings. His father instructed him to wait at the side of the road in case any passing vehicle, most likely agricultural, should pass; in which case he should flag it down. On previous days they’d had little success in this venture, even with the combined efforts of both generations; the closest being when a lorry had slowed and a window lowered, but only in order for the driver to yell at them to stay out of the road, and, imparting a hand gesture that angered the father, left them listening to the increasingly faint rumble of the engine and the crunch of tyres over the uncertain surface of the road. The father had learned from their failure, and, needing to be certain that the boy, left to his own devices, should elicit success, he had made him practice, as the dust from the departing lorry had settled, and had satisfied himself from close up as well as at a fair distance, that the boy’s gesticulations would surely could stop his earnest manifestation of a tractor (though the pitch of his voice was too high to convince as the engine) only when the spinning and flailing motion of the boy’s hands threatened to topple him backwards.
Whilst Fabio waited, his senses poised in expectation of transport that would advertise its arrival long in advance through its spluttering engine greeting keen young ears, his father would scramble between the wires of the fence, estimating as best he could mid-way between two posts for maximum leverage, and work his way to a vantage point, where he could look out and ascertain which direction they were heading, and check that there were neither friend nor foe (tractor nor bandit), approaching from either direction.
With little to think about these past few days, and a stomach almost past caring about food, having exhausted itself through complaining about the lack of it, the boy had idly wondered if the road they were walking along ever came to a natural end, and if it did, what would happen. Various little deceits he had fashioned for himself along the way, one of which was a method of taking a rest by requesting a toilet break. It occurred to him now that he had never seen his father in the act of relieving himself, and that the lengthy morning breaks, which he had seen as pointless, must serve another purpose besides providing a vigilant lookout for saviours or certain death.
Just then his father came whistling from behind a copse of trees, the melody tuneful and optimistic, conjuring the odd word to the hymn that he sung in the boy’s mind, though the words of the chorus eluded him. There was a pause in the melody as he clambered through the thin wire fence, holding his felt hat to his head, the pipes of his lungs whistling as if to fill the void, but then he gathered pace in rejoining the boy on the path, slapping him on the back with his hand, calling him by name, and setting off at a pace that exceeded the comfortable walking speed of the child.
Reluctantly rushing to keep up, the soles of his feet screaming their objection, the boy kicked a stone on the path in frustration. With double the length in stride, walking only one pace to the boy’s frantic two, and with a cheeriness that he at least feigned, clapping a hand against his chest against the shock of a damp tobacco tab that had lit on the third match, the father set and maintained the pace of their march, the leather uppers of his boots springing back and forth each time he kicked out a foot, like a metronome keeping time.
“All clear, father?” the boy asked, reading bemusement in the older face.
“All clear. No pirates on the horizon, no bandits behind either hill, not a highwayman in sight,” confirmed his father, realising what the boy had been asking, and giving a militaristic salute that failed to amuse him. “It’s as well to keep watch, Fabio,” he went on, replicating the sombreness of his son’s face. “We need to know that it’s safe to go on.”
“We’ve been going on forever,” the boy complained, with unfair exaggeration. “How much further?”
Rubbing his chin, then licking his finger and holding it out in front of him, the man made an assessment. “Not far now.”
The boy groaned. It was a familiar answer to his question. For his part, Fabio knew the question was nebulous, and that the answer would either depress him or give him false hope. Would he know the place when he saw it? There was something, though he was not sure what, familiar about the topography they were now emerging into. He had seen so much of the countryside since they had set off on their trip only three days earlier that his brain had passed over every detail; for he had experienced more trees, stones, streams, fish, birds, clouds, hills, fields, and lengths of slowly moulding cheese cut off in chunks from within his father’s pocket than he could possibly count in a lifetime; and so rather than remember them, it jettisoned them and filled his mind instead with the rhymes of the playground. Now, trudging after his father, always a few feet behind and always striving to catch up, he swung his arms militaristically, in forced robotic movements, one out in front and one behind him, then reversing them in great sweeping arcs, his elbows unbent, whilst the leather soles of his shoes scraped across the stones and dust in time with the rhythm of a song he recalled, which had forced itself into his mind, and which begged him to sing aloud. Inside, he belted the words, but his mouth only moved along, his throat occasionally issuing a humming sound or an unintentional squawk, masking the coarse lyrics that he understood well enough to know that his father would not tolerate.
What would he do should he swear? Fabio could not say. He had never sworn in front of his father, and only ever at school by parroting the other boys, who claimed to know, like a Delphic dictionary for schoolboys, the full meaning of all the words and phrases that repeated themselves in the obscurantist verses of the songs he knew better than the hymns his father whistled. Fabio did not know, but rather guessed, that his punishment would be a sharp rebuke with a hand across the back of his legs, which were exposed, thanks to the length of his shorts, beneath his pale white knees. It was a long time since his father had punished him with brute force, more recently shouting; then, breathless, falling pale and quiet; which had unnerved the boy enough to behave, and on this occasion, stay silent.
Yet there was something familiar about the road, that rose up above the song in his head which wanted to transport him back to school, back to his home town, back to their house on the road with the fir tree. It was something else, some other memory fighting to get out, trying to topple the happy playground song; and now that he ran out of remembered verses, Fabio idly wondered about his surroundings instead. Was it the trees? There were no roads anywhere near where he lived that were lined with cypresses, and yet he was certain he had seen such a road before. Maybe it had been in a photograph, or an advertisement in a magazine? He stopped to look.
“Come on, come on,” his father shouted, hands on his sides as he nevertheless paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. His voice was dim as if far away. By the time the boy turned round his father was scampering down the road where it ran under a stream and turned into a narrow dirt track that cut through the hill. Putting on some speed, and instantly feeling the dampness of his clothes chafe around his thighs and all over his back, Fabio sprinted as best he could over the uneven terrain, able to see why his father had sped off as soon as he skidded down the dip in the road. Coming along the hill on the left, following the route of a road that soon joined theirs, was a fantastically dirty van: a short, squat vehicle with tyres that looked as though they were made from wet mud, which trailed a long tail and a shower of dirt water behind it.
In good time his father had reached the intersection of the roads and now stood, waving frantically, much as he had taught his son to do, and he continued in this manner until the lorry slowed and stopped.
“Whoa, there, whoa!” the father cried out, whilst the boy stamped through the stream and clambered uphill to rejoin him, wondering why his father talked to vehicles as though they were horses. The driver’s door was opening, and his father was beaming victoriously. “I told you someone would stop for us. Didn’t I say? Didn’t I tell you?”
The boy agreed. His father had been as good as his word, eventually.
“Please, my good man, are you heading in the direction of _?” asked the father to a short, stout, bald man with tight skin, who wore a crumpled linen shirt and now removed a broad handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his glistening face and pate. The boy did not catch the name of the town his father had asked for, but the little fat man answered in the affirmative, and began making grand gestures for them to take repose in the back of his van. Taking down the back panel and offering a steadying hand, the father was able to use the driver’s kindness and climb aboard with ease. Once he had hauled himself into place, he reached down a hand for his son and between he and the driver; the boy was soon pulled aboard. Winking at the boy, the driver coughed into his handkerchief as he sealed the back panel and walked around to the front of the van.
With his two long legs already stretched out in front of him and his back pressed against the cabin at the front, the father was already settled, and tapped the wooden boards next to him, so that his son could scramble over the back of the lorry and sit beside him, curling into position just as the van lurched forwards, bouncing over the loose stones until the tyres gripped, and made its way uphill.
Pressing their hands into the hard wooden floor, the boy and his father kept themselves from slipping towards the back of the van. The wooden panels were chipped and rough, and the ride uncomfortable, but it was a relief for both of them to be sitting, and to see the landscape move at speed, and with no effort from them. After three days of walking, the fourth day had started well, with the longed for lift, and although it was only one hour since he had woken, Fabio felt tired again, now that he was able to relax. Usually his father would reprimand him for sleeping during the day, but today was different, and the man cradled his son’s head in his arms, allowing him to sleep like a dog, his head resting on his thigh, taking care not to touch the boy’s back, where the skin, exposed in a strip of angry red, caught the father’s attention. Gently pulling the boy’s shirt down to cover the skin, the father contented himself with watching his son sleeping, occasionally ruffling his hair.
And in this way Fabio remained for – an hour perhaps? Longer? The sun was at its height when the lorry stopped, and the cutting of the engine, which until that point had kept the boy in sleep with its rhythmic ticking and chugging, excised him from a blank sleep, and he woke to find his eyes sticky, and his neck aching.
Gently pushing the boy from him so that he could jump out of the van now that the fat man had, with a grand flourish of his fingers, released the back panel, the father called out to his boy, gesturing for him to go towards him, as if he was trying to attract the affections of a cat.
Paying little heed to where they were, concerned only with the headache that announced itself as soon as he sat up straight, and with accompanying aches in his muscles and soreness on his skin as he struggled to uncoil himself and move, the boy instinctively crawled on all fours, as he had routinely done only a few years earlier. Reaching the back of the van in this manner, he threw himself off, narrowly avoiding his father’s readily outstretched arms, so that even though the boy was caught some way above the ground, it was at such a careless angle that the father lost balance and toppled, heaving both of them down to the road. Here they remained, the boy lying on top of his father in a state of being held, whilst his father, embarrassed and keen to shake the driver (who laughed without malice at their misadventure) by the hand, fought against breathlessness to raise them both to their feet, where they shook the dust from their clothes and examined their skin for scrapes and bruises, which, luckily, in regard to the fall at least, were few.
Rubbing his forehead, blinking his eyes as if in hope of squeezing out the headache, Fabio felt the nausea return. It was not as bad as it had been a few days earlier when he had woken in the night, under the canopy of the tree, after their first full day travelling, and had thrown up over the nearest gravestone which, having used the solace of the churchyard and the outstretched branches of an elm within its grounds, troubled his conscience until they had begun moving again. He had caught the name on the gravestone as he vomited, which personalised the final resting place he desecrated, and he imagined the spirit of the deceased angrily on foot from heaven to have their revenge upon him. This thought, though he mostly pushed it from his mind during daylight hours, troubled him still, and as he now rocked backwards and forwards on his feet, waiting for his father to finish thanking the fat driver, whose domed head gleamed like polished brass under the glare of the sun, he rubbed his stomach and wished for a cup of cold milk to settle it, and imagined himself drinking it, which made him feel more wretched still.
Having bequeathed the driver’s hand back to him, the father now waited for him to return to his van and continue his journey unburdened by hitchhikers. His arm already positioned to wave off their kindly conveyor, an embarrassed wait resulted when the engine did not fire on the first few turns of the key, and could only be justified when, with relief from all three quarters, the vehicle started and rolled forwards slowly, with one toot of the horn, until the trees obscured all but the wake of dust from view.
Whilst his father waved, the boy looked to see where they had stopped. There was no town or city in sight, and only a few scattered farms over the distant hills, but a private wall behind that gave way to a long driveway flanked by cypress trees, which they now took to on foot; the father, for the first time since they had left the comfort of their home, offering the boy his hand, which, weary on his feet and reminded of blisters, he took.
In this manner they arrived at the top of the driveway, and, once the cypress trees gave way, they could see the façade of the building they were visiting. Its size justified the length of the driveway – the boy counted a dozen windows on the ground floor, making it two dozen square windows altogether, each protected by a rusted iron cross, which had permeated the grey plaster façade, giving it a look, Fabio thought fancifully, that each window was an eye weeping blood. This image didn’t strike him as ghastly, but melancholy. The downturned arch of the front door, which they now approached, and the squat, hunched roof, sloping in a gentle gradient, combined to give the appearance of the building letting out an almighty and perpetual sigh.
Yet as his father reached out and pulled the doorbell, Fabio returned to the thought that had lingered since he and his father had taken the road that led there, and that was that he saw familiarity in the unfamiliar. There was something in the shape of the trees, together with the bars on the windows that recalled barely formed memories long repressed in the recesses of his outgrown childish mind. He was wondering if somehow he had been there before, or if he had even seen a similar-looking building previously, when the door opened, and the bright light illuminated a marble floor and the folds of a neat, black garment.
The father had opened his mouth to offer an introduction, coughing as he did so, to the shrouded creature who held open the door with one wizened old hand, the skin spotted with patches of darker brown, as if she might at any moment slam it closed, but his words died in his mouth when a shrill, authoritarian female voice, which ushered out as one continuous blast of sound from between two thin lips which were each punctuated by long vertical crags in the flesh at irregular intervals, commanded silence.
“The boy is too old. We do not take boys of his age. We have never taken boys of his age. Too old. Under five years of age only. The rules are clear. Much, much too old.”
She spoke in short, rapid sentences, barely punctuated with pauses, but at the end of each the father (who had removed his hat and agitatedly turned it between his hands) attempted to offer an explanation for their visit, but it was a failed venture, as he had no more than filled his lungs, or coughed onto his sleeve, before the old lady started to speak again.
Finally, the father interrupted, with an apologetic bow. “Mother Superior, the boy came from here. His name is Fabio. My dear wife and I adopted him some seven years ago.”
This made a little more sense to the boy, who had been following the adults’ conversation, and he instantly turned to study a panorama of his surroundings. The news was no grave shock. It had been explained to him, by his mother and father, that they were not his real parents. This too had made sense to him, as he had always dimly recalled a time before he had lived at their house, where the rug was laid out before the fire and he slept in a bed in the corner; but only in fragments, which would rush to make sense in his mind when he smelled certain scents, or saw certain shapes, the cypress trees now being one. Curious, he fastened his ears to every word the adults spoke, whilst hoping that, by keeping his eyes wide open and breath quiet and deep, that he would recall how this place had played a part in his early life.
Smiling encouragement at the look of worry on the boy’s face, the father took his hand and pushed him gently forwards, through the door. In contrast to the brilliance of the light outside, it was oppressively dark within the confines of the building: darker still once Mother Superior closed the door, and it thudded shut with an echo that bounced from the bare white plaster walls and shiny marble floor. That most of the windows were shuttered from within explained the gloominess, and the only visible light came from way up above, a tiny speck from the next floor up, that glistened off the coiled brass railing on the stairway, and from the statue on the wall of the staircase of a man, naked save for a ripped cloth around his groin, nailed, bleeding and in pain, into two crossed strips of wood. It was the statue, and most particularly the look on his face that brought the boy back some seven years to his early childhood. It made sense now: the darkness, the austere old woman in the strange garments, the statue above the stairs that watched the flow of traffic that passed through the main hall every hour of every day, every time he went to bed; and the look on his face that showed not just pain, but something else too. Years ago the boy didn’t know what that something else was, but now it was obvious to him: it was accusation, and as they followed Mother Superior along the corridor of the main hall towards the back of the building, the boy found that his hairs stood on end around his neck, and as he lifted a hand to scratch the sore skin that chafed now worse than ever against his back, he shot a sly glance to the statue and swore its eyes were following him, watching his every move, judging him too, and he now knew that the look on his face was accusation, as if the boy himself had nailed him up above the stairs, his perpetual agony his doing. Of course, he had seen something very similar in his home, and in the church his parents, in times gone by, had sometimes taken him to: but those figures, in the same pose, had been more abstract, without any of the realism of the blood oozing down the face, hands and feet, and without that terrifying look in his eyes.
Rushing to catch up with the adults, the boy’s shoes clacked and reverberated on the marble tiles, prompting the sister to bend over him and place a crooked finger against her leathery lips, a similar look of accusation in her milky eyes. Slipping his hand back into his father’s, Fabio clung close to him until they reached the far end of the corridor.
“Is it better that the boy does not hear?” his father asked, extracting his hand from the boy’s warm grasp.
“As you wish.” Mother Superior reached within the folds of her habit and withdrew a set of keys. Selecting the correct one, and satisfying herself that it was indeed correct by holding it close to her eyes and rubbing the teeth with her finger, she opened the door to a room decked out with a large wooden table and chair, and waved the father inside. He hesitated, looking back at the boy with heavy eyes, turning his hat between his hands once more.
“You, boy. Do you enjoy to play?” the woman asked. Fabio looked to his father, who nodded, and he followed suit, nodding without enthusiasm. “Then play.” She pointed a long, crooked finger at the double doors at the end of the corridor, and as the adults disappeared into the opened room, the boy understood the instruction and pushed open the double doors, and with relief, stepped back out into the light.
More long-shelved memories came back to him as he recalled the echoing and incoherent sounds of children playing within the walls of the quadrangle he now stepped in to: the grey walls reflecting the light and asking his eyes once again to adjust under the sudden assault of sunshine.
It looked smaller now, and emptier too, as he was alone, but it was definitely the place he had played as a child, when let outside with a few dozen other children (what became of them? He had never wondered before). At his young age, he had crawled, or toddled, barely speaking, barely making sense of the world, or of the chatter of older children who had towered over him like giants, or their toys, often fashioned from scraps fallen from trees, that they used in elaborate games of which he had never been a part. Here, within the first few years of his life, after fate had made him an orphan, he had come to imagine for an hour each day, which, now he remembered, he had spent watching, often finding the shaded wall, and silent. Then, it had seemed like a wide open and threatening space, even though it was hemmed in on all sides by steep walls, but now, after his mother and father had introduced him to the park and, once, to the seaside, it seemed a paltry space, with no indications that any child had ever played there, amongst the loose stones and the strewn leaves and twigs.
Idly kicking a pebble that lay temptingly in the centre of a nearby flagstone, and watching it clatter off the far wall and come to rest beside the long wooden benches, the boy became quickly bored and looked for a new distraction. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he challenged himself to walk as if on stilts, his knees unbending and his hands rooted inside his trousers. Flapping his arms as if in impression of a chicken, he was able to so start off on his mission to complete one lap of the quadrangle without overbalancing. Occasionally he paused, rocking back and forth on stilt-like legs, hovering beneath or between windows whenever a snatch of life disturbed the quietude of the quadrangle.
“And what does that make?” a female voice inquired, the question of paramount importance. There was a murmur of reply from a group of children.
“And times that by four?” After a moment’s pause came another reply, less unanimous this time. Daring to peep through the window, Fabio caught sight of a nun at the front of the room, pointing with a long wooden ruler. She must have been half the age of Mother Superior; and the children, although they sat upright at their desks and were as big as the children who had towered over him on the last occasion he had been in the quadrangle, must have been half his age. Everything looked smaller now, the classroom too, and the giants had turned into dwarves. Caught wondering what he was doing there at all, Fabio almost kept on tip-toes looking through the window too long, and as the sister swished her ruler in an arc through the air, landing in a trajectory to the boy beneath his head, Fabio quickly dropped out of sight, bending his back so as not to break his promise to himself about bending his knees, and like that, he scuttled like an Emu around to the next windows, where, straightening, he winced in pain at the tight, red skin on his back that climbed like a stain up to his neck.
Once again, he listened, craning his neck and ear, but this time keeping out of view by leaning his legs against the wall. In this room, prayers were being muttered – a familiar incantation. The words somewhere in the boy’s memory flooded back, though their meaning was still alien to him, but the very obscurity of the words lent them a grandeur and importance that simpler recitations such as nursery rhymes that had replaced the prayers, and had in turn been replaced by the playground songs, had never possessed. The adult voice led a chorus of children in repeating the words, and the tone of reverence was maintained by all so impeccably that although Fabio was desperate to move his head only a few inches further to his left and peep between the slats of the shutters, his nerve failed him, and he continued shuffling around the quadrangle.
What, he wondered, as his shoes scraped against the flagstones, had he done to deserve his elevated position of being entrusted with having the run of the playground? Never before had he been alone, and unsupervised. He was being treated as an adult, he thought, for the first time in his life. He was now the giant amongst the other children. Previously, he had been too young, and had not lived there long before the man and woman became father and mother, and took him away from where he never fitted in. Still he did not fit in. So why had his father brought him back? He was still walking as he pondered this question, reaching an arm to scratch his sore skin that glowed red raw and throbbed for hours afterwards whenever he ran his fingernails over it; but the blessed, superficial, all too momentary relief was too much temptation to bear, and as his father was not present to tell him off, he scratched the worst-affected areas, letting his fingers linger over the bumpy surface of his skin, that had been sore for longer than he cared to remember.
Completing his lap, and raising his arms victoriously, having not bent either knee once, and listening to the applause that resounded from each window, and bowing to every wall, Fabio exhausted himself and decided to sit in the shade. Only the wall of the double doors was in partial shade, so he slid down to a seating position and took to gathering stones in his hands, with the idle plan that he might throw them into a flower basket, whose contents had long since shrivelled under the sun and turned to ash, which was chained to the far wall. So seated, the boy unintentionally heard familiar voices. It was his father and the old lady. The only surprise to him was that his father did not normally speak in such hushed tones unless he was in the library or church.
“Is the boy not obedient?” He heard the Mother Superior’s voice clearly, even though she was facing away from him.
“He is a good boy, a very good boy, Reverend Mother, make no mistake.”
“Then I remain uncertain why you have come to ask for money.”
The emotion in his father’s voice, the slight tremble in his words, the boy had last heard a few years earlier. “Things have been hard, very hard, since my wife passed away. All her life she had willed God to bless her with a child. The need for one consumed her. It cost us dearly to come here and in some ways, with my wife unable to work so she could look after the boy – we never caught up.”
“All this you knew when you took the boy,” the old lady crowed.
“I know that, Mother Superior.”
“We told you,” she said, and then, pressing her point: “I told you.”
“It’s not for me that I ask you for money, but for the boy. He’s sick. I cannot afford a doctor. One came to look at him and told me that his condition can be treated – but only with medicines. Expensive medicines. And that he will die soon if I do not find money for medicines. My own health is poor. I cannot work many hours without exhausting myself. How am I to find money for my boy? Help me. You must help me.”
His father was weeping, but Fabio remained unmoved. He vaguely understood what it meant to die – after all his mother had died, and his first parents too, but he had been promised that he would see her again after death, when there was no pain. “So, he brings me here because I am dying,” he said, grinding sharp chips of stone under his hands. Then, not thinking about it for now, he listened to the voices through the window again.
“You must pray for his recovery.”
“I pray every night, Reverend Mother,” the father replied, his voice cracking. “I pray for the doctor to change his mind and treat my boy without money, but he has never called back. I pray for the rash on his back to be gone in the morning, but it gets worse. I pray for my own health to return so that I can work for money, but each day my lungs take in less air. I pray you, as my last hope, will help.”
“You must pray harder, night and day, for your boy to be well again.”
Now he could hear his father sobbing, the great heaves of his chest so deep and so unstoppable that only a coughing fit brought them to an end. All this time, Mother Superior kept her counsel.
“Please,” his father said at last, having blown his nose, “see the boy for yourself.”
The boy heard the legs of a chair scraping back over the floor. Darting sideways and leaping to his feet, Fabio rushed to the corner of the quadrangle in fear of discovery, where he leant against the wall, ignoring the instant pain the pressure on his back caused, trying to suggest nonchalance; but his staring eyes like those of a startled rabbit betrayed him. He did not feel ill, and this confused him. It’s true that the previous week he had been visited at home by somebody whose brown leather bag meant that he could ask the boy to remove his shirt and show him his red and blotchy skin. True, too, that his back had been itchy and more recently still his legs had ached, but to say that he was ill seemed to the boy at least, a stretch of the imagination.
Turning to see his father, red-eyed but otherwise showing no signs of having been upset, and the inquisitive face of the elderly Mother Superior, her eyes watery in the light, the boy stood still, recognizing in them too something of the look of the statue above the staircase.
“Come here, boy,” the sister asked of him, with a twitch of her finger.
Gingerly, Fabio did as he was bid, walking over to her; the presence of the adults meaning that he had at once relinquished his childish game of not bending his knees.
“Turn around,” she entreated him. The boy obeyed. Her two hands pulled at the small of his back, releasing his shirt from where he had tucked it beneath his belt. It was pulled forwards, up and over his head, but as no effort had been made to release the buttons, there was no way of removing it from around his neck, necessitating for the boy to hang his head as a tunnel of white, billowing fabric blinkered him whilst the sister pressed at the sore skin of his back with both hands.
“Is it an infection?”
“The doctor told me no details,” his father replied. “Not without money.”
“Doctors!” scoffed Mother Superior, her coarse fingertips tracing not unwelcome circles like pumice stone over the whole of his back. “Well, it doesn’t look like meningitis. We’ve had a few die from that between these walls, some younger than him.”
“I am sorry to hear it,” the father replied.
Mother Superior cleared her throat. “I can see no medicine in the world curing this. What the boy needs, only God can supply.”
“I have prayed – oh! – how I’ve prayed! I’ve lost my wife. I can’t lose my boy too,” his father said, his voice threatening to crack again.
“You must trust that God has a plan for all of us,” the sister said with reassuring certainty. “It was your wife’s time. It may be your boy’s time also, but you must put your trust in God to decide. Do not try to subvert God’s will with expensive medicines,” she added, censoriously. Her hands finished the examination of the boy’s back. “All right, boy. You may redress yourself.”
This was easier said than done, as the shirt had been pulled right over his back and it now gathered in a clump around his neck, stretching out towards the ground. As Fabio battled with his shirt, Mother Superior spoke again to his father.
“We will not give you money for medicines. That is not what we believe in here, nor why God sent you. But if you truly have faith, you and the boy may join a pilgrimage leaving here in the morning, to a place where Our Lady recently blessed us with her divine presence, and ask her for a miracle. We can give you supper for one night, and one bed which you must share, and you must be ready to leave at first light. All we ask is that if you are granted a miracle, you remember who sent you, and donate to us. That is all I can offer.”
With sufficient contraction of his muscles, and contortion of his arms, which tightened the skin on his back, the boy was able to force the shirt over his head, and, like climbing out of a pit, he re-emerged into the daylight and smiled with relief now that he could see again. It took him by surprise to witness his father; bent down upon his knees, kissing what he imagined must have been the feet of the Mother Superior, evidence for which he had never seen emerging from the front of her robes. This disillusioned the boy of an earlier assumption that she didn’t need legs, but rather hovered a few inches from the ground and moved only through the power of prayer and devotion, and he looked away, finding it distasteful that his father should break the spell, with his voice now cracking again and his chest wheezing as it did whenever he was overcome with emotion.
“You are fortunate indeed for God to have singled out for you such a devoted father,” Mother Superior said, a smile of satisfaction on her lips. “You may yet be saved, boy.”
Walking in the direction of the doors, leaving the boy to look curiously down at the still prostrate body of his father, who clutched the lapels of his jacket with one hand and stared wildly out of a pale white face, Mother Superior clapped her hands and impatiently indicated that she was to be followed indoors. Helping his father, who was recovering his breath, to his feet, Fabio held his hand, noticing that it was cold and sweaty, and helped his father towards the doors.
That night, Fabio lay awake next to his father, who, by his size (at six feet, a tall man, with wide shoulders above his thin frame), occupied most of the single bed with which they had been supplied. It was not merely the long-ago supper of watery soup and solid bread that lay like sand in his stomach, and which churned every once in a while that kept him awake; nor was it especially that he remained fully clothed as they had been requested to do, and he felt the collar of his shirt pinch around the neck so that, after an hour of shifting in a futile effort to find comfort, he risked the all-seeing eye of his Creator and released the top button; but the fact that the bed shook interminably.
When the thin cotton sheet provided for them was thrown off, then dragged over them again, only to be thrown off once more, the boy asked his father if he was all right.
“Perfectly all right, my son,” he replied, his teeth chattering as he spoke. Resting on his elbow, the boy turned to look at his father, whose face glistened with sweat. The moonlight sneaking through gaps in the shutters lit it in a horrible fashion, so that the boy fancied his father’s head to be made from black and brilliant white patches in place of skin.
It was the unfamiliarity of the bed, the boy told himself, an hour later when he still lay awake. That and the excitement of the trip they were to take in the morning, only a few hours later. That and the cold clamminess of the bedsheets as his father’s body shed all the moisture it could, as if it were a saturated sponge.
“Am I to fetch you a glass of water?” asked the boy, thinking that he could do as well to throw it over his father, judging by the heat radiating from the other side of the mattress.
“Do not trouble yourself, my boy. We are in a place of God here,” his father replied, turning to his side and moaning gently as he pulled his knees up to his chest and lay like a baby.
“I will fetch you a glass of water,” said Fabio, and when his father made no discernable objection, he decided to make good on his promise and swung his legs out of bed. The absence of natural light in the room made it difficult for him to balance, but since there was barely enough room for the bed, he lay his hand on the door with little difficulty, and by waving his arm, he soon located the handle, and, opening the door as quietly as he could, he stepped out into the corridor.
Relieved to see, as he quickly shot his head in both directions, that he was alone, the boy set off along the corridor in the direction in which he had furthest to travel before reaching the high window at the end. He had no idea where he was going, as it was the largest building he had ever been inside, and he had no concrete memories of his time there which he could rely upon, so his first thought was to find the dining room in which they had eaten the bread and soup, and see if he could find an adjoining kitchen, which was sure to contain a tap.
He was unused to moving about at night, in the dark, with stealth. At home, there had only been he and his father in recent years, and in their small house each room was no more than one room apart from any other. Here, corridors and levels dizzied his senses, and as he crept down the stairs, his bare feet (he had been ordered to remove his boots before the bedroom door was opened) slapping against the cold stone stairs, he held his breath and wished himself invisible, but almost let out a scream when he rounded the bend in the stairs and saw that he was being observed by piercing white eyes set into a twisted, angry face, high up above him. Stifling the sound, but keeping stock still for the moment, the hairs on his neck standing up and the blood draining to his feet, the boy saw that it was only the statue. For a reason he could not divine he had assumed that the statue too was put to bed at nights, and it was the shock of seeing that the face was always anguished, the body always naked and bleeding, and the eyes ever-vigilant, that had stopped him in his tracks.
The eyes in his sockets, moving every bit as much as the statue’s, were now over-active, darting into every darkened corner and unseen recess in the stairs, even whilst his feet stayed firmly planted. Daring to press on, for his father’s sake, and on the lookout for ghosts shrouded in habits who would command him back to his room, and ensuring that he did not cast a look back over his shoulder to check that the statue’s eyes were following him, Fabio descended the steps and looked for the dining room, all the time suppressing sudden memories of his infancy, and the urge to jump at each flickering shadow cast by the moving arms of the trees beyond the shutters. Darkness clung to the walls and the floors – a blacker darkness than the one he knew at home, where a blazing fire or lamp in the street, or the orange glow of other people’s houses filtered comfortingly through their windows and kept the darkness out. The boy fancied that it was darker here because whilst the nuns and children slept, the spirits were free to shroud the place until they woke, and he thought of the children who had died there, and decided it must have happened at night, when nobody was watching over them. Shivering, and trying to stop his mind from thinking such thoughts, as the goose bumps on his back caused his skin to chafe, he decided that shadows were only shadows, and the darkness only a place where there was no light. He was nearly ten, he told himself. Time to stop being so childish.
The dining room, that a few hours previously had offered a salutary respite from the severity of the nuns, looked different in darkness: longer, and somehow less welcoming. The well-cleaned table tops of the two long oak tables gleamed orange as light from the kitchen bounced off them. This brought the boy to a halt. Previously, in the enveloping darkness, the blackness had frightened him. Now, he was frightened by the light, because it indicated the presence of another. The doors separating the dining room and kitchen swung freely on hinges and had a pane of glass, which allowed the boy to creep forwards, safe in the knowledge that as the kitchen was lit, but the dining room in darkness, he could not be spotted through the glass – at least not by mortals.
On tip-toes, he was able to crane sufficiently upwards to see into the kitchen, where the usual accoutrements – pots, pans, and most importantly, a sink with tap could be seen, but what was of peculiar interest to him, and which called the attention of his eyes, was the large slab of sponge cake, thickly iced, which lay on the tabletop, which seemed to be layered with cream and decorated with glacier cherries. It had not formed part of the dinner, and he had never imagined that such a magnificent foodstuff could exist between these walls.
Making a good effort of ensuring that evidence for the cake’s existence was destroyed, was a squat, fat figure, sitting on a stool like an apple on a matchstick. A plump hand extended from within a substantial habit and reached out, the fingers looking as though they had been iced by the baker as well, which then scooped up a fresh slab of pre-cut cake and deposited it somewhere behind the downturned wimple, which was at such an angle so that only a rosy cheek, like the side of a pink balloon, could occasionally be seen.
The boy watched the steadily disappearing cake in fascination, fancying that at any moment the near-spherical figure propped precariously on the stool might burst out of her habit, or else discharge the cake in some other way. Swaying on his tiptoes, the boy extended his arms to retain his balance, and although his feet ached, he was so fascinated by the unlikely sight of the cake, and the less likely sight of the creature devouring it, that he leant ever closer to the window, wishing now less to share in the cake as to touch it, and satisfy himself that it was real.
Coming to the last, and thickest iced slab, and lifting it up with licked-clean fingers, the cake-eater let out a groan of pleasurable expectation, so loud and unexpected that it set the boy off balance, and despite frantically waving his arms, he was unable to still his forward momentum and slammed into the double doors before rebounding off them and skidding on his backside along the finely-polished parquet flooring of the dining room. Diverting himself, by kicking out with his feet, under the nearest of the two great tables, and pulling the immediately surrounding stools close together to better conceal him, the boy waited, holding his breath and hoping that he would not be noticed, or dragged out by the cake-eater and eaten in turn. Instead, the kitchen doors were thrown open and the cake-eater, letting out a shrill and hysterical wail, stood where she was, the doors juddering together behind her, looking frantically left and right to see who had disturbed her. Determined not to be discovered, Fabio stayed still, and watched as seconds later, having imagined herself to be still alone, the nun screamed again, louder this time, and took off in the direction of the corridor with a speed that amazed the boy, as the tent-like habit, with two feet pounding beneath them like elephantine pistons, paraded her out of the dining room. Seconds later he heard her clump upstairs, wailing afresh, which attracted more sounds of doors opening and closing, and hushed and angry voices, to join the already considerable sound that had shattered the silence of the night.
Seizing his chance, Fabio dashed into the kitchen, skidding on the slippery floor. As the doors shuddered behind him, he couldn’t resist a quick look over the tabletop where the wholesale assault on the cake had taken place. Marvelling, and raising his eyebrows accordingly, he looked upon a glistening plate, incongruous as the only crockery on the table, where the absence of cake could only be known to him because he had seen it. Now he could no more prove a cake had once stood tall and proud upon that plate as he could prove the day he was born.
Shaking his head in disbelief of what he had witnessed, the boy quickly set about the reason for his visit, and found the first vessel to hand, which was a glass shaped a little like a chalice, which he then filled with water from the tap, running it a few seconds over his finger to ensure it was cool. Sliding out through the doors backwards so as to protect the glass from spillage, the boy hurried back the way he had come, taking care to take the stairs as nimbly and quietly as he could. With the volume of water unchanged in the cup since leaving the kitchen, the boy reached the landing, and, looking up to check his location, was a little surprised to see that the corridor was lit, and occupied by three nuns wearing long white nightgowns, and the plump cake-eater, who sat with her back against the wall, weeping bitterly into her hands.
“What do you mean by this disturbance, boy?” It was the old, thin Mother Superior, who had perhaps never eaten a morsel of food in her life, who now bore down on the boy like a coiled cobra eyeing up prey, and who held out a thick-wicked candle in her hand, keeping her face, especially the tip of its long, thin nose, like the beak of a sparrow, illuminated at all times.
“Please, miss,” began the boy, panic rising.
“Reverend Mother, if you please.”
“Please, Miss Reverend Mother, I was fetching some water for my father, only he has a fever and is in desperate need of it.”
Mother Superior looked from the boy to the glass chalice and back again, before recoiling to a relaxed position. “You should have come to me, boy. If you had needed anything, you should have come to me.”
“Miss Reverend Mother, I did not know where to find you, if you please.”
“Wicked boy!” hissed Mother Superior, her earlier opprobrium flaring once again, as did her eyes. “Hurry along.”
The boy did as he was told, stealing a quick glimpse at the seated and weeping nun, who was flanked on either side by standing nuns with candles. There, around her mouth, the boy could see traces of icing and cream, proving him that he had not imagined the scene in the kitchen, and that the cake had existed. By the time he reached his room, he could no longer hear her wailing, nor any noise other than the crickets and the snoring of his father. Thinking better than to wake him, the boy set the chalice by the foot of the bed and sat with his back against the door. From that angle he could see out through the slits in the shutters, and he wondered above which side hung the moon, and if he would ever sleep again.