A Country Visitation – Joe Galván

SOMEONE SAID TO A GIRL I KNEW ONCE, ask Father McDowell to help you and he will.

Go on, ask him.

Father Holden McDowell.

Father Holden McDowell. You know, the young priest from Theology 1301?

Him. The hot one.

One summer, long ago, I stripped off a grey sweatshirt with the words SANTA CLARA COLLEGE and played football on the green grass of the quad with a few individuals, otherwise nameless, in a shameless attempt to explain the Aristotelian essences prevalent in the work of John Duns Scotus.

Here, I’ll show you photographic evidence.

That’s me in that picture.

Me with the hairy chest.

I am the hot one. Although I do not think I am hot.

On the Problem of Empathy.

Edith Stein’s paper refuting Heidegger’s paper refuting a French philosopher’s argument on the problem of empathy.

St Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. She who was immolated at Auschwitz, 1944.

She who was immolated at Auschwitz, a martyr

Kreuzeswissenschaft. The science of the Cross. On the role of St John of the Cross in Carmelite spirituality.

Jesuit History, Colonialism, and the Upending of the Third World.

Martin Amis.

Two books I assigned to the class to read in the autumn of my thirty-fifth year on earth and fifth at the college, the same college I went to.

Simone Weil. Notebooks, volumes one and two.

This is what I give my kids to read in theology. Not easy stuff. I want them to find God in their own subtle ways. I want them to find Him under rocks, in bones, in piles of dead leaves, in living heaps of destroyed matter in the underbrush of the forest at Mount Manresa College, where I also live.

My name is Holden McDowell, and I’m a priest and a psychologist living at Mount Manresa, Washington.

This is a true story.

I met Alphonsine when she was 24. I had just turned 36.

Her name was funny and she relished in her oddness. She vaped in the quad. She called the nuns ‘the old gals’ and the priests ‘the collars’. She wore clunky, gigantic calf-high Doc Maartens. She wore cropped shirts and wore rouge. She wore lipstick to Mass. Sometimes she’d dress in black on a perfectly beautiful day. She offended the straight-laced traditionalists and most of the lily-livered liberal contingent at Mount Manresa College and did not care who knew.

But I knew that she was a brilliant writer, someone who could look at a page and will it into existence, someone who could spin phrases seven ways from Sunday.

She was a brilliant artist, too. The best artist I ever met.

I loved her. Brightest failure in my theology class.

She flunked my theology course twice, and I still loved her.

People like her have always have a story. An alcoholic father, a daughter of Irish drunks who practiced a rigid sort of Catholicism not seen here in the Pacific Northwest. An idyllic childhood spent in Roseland all her life, where Mount Manresa is, where it looks down on its dollar days and chili cookouts and white supremacist bars and its rows of old houses.

She’d lived there all her life, and like the good girl she’d been raised to be, went to Mount Manresa College at her father’s behest—his dying wish, she said—and the entire course of her track in college was one mental health crisis after another.

Bipolar disorder II, Dr Sorabji said.

Borderline personality disorder, Dr Rawls said.

Father Davis, the old priest at the Manse, my spiritual director, said she needed a good strong retreat, like the ones he used to give to recovering hippies in the 1970s, the ones that turned pot smoking messes into Mass-going family men.

‘Send her to me,’ he said to me, one day. ‘I’ll get her fixed, just you wait.’

The college sent her to me instead.

Our first session. Three PM. My office in Gonzaga Hall.

‘You can call me Father Holden. Or just Holden if you want.’

‘OK,’ she said. ‘I’m Alphonsine.’

‘Sister Jean told me that you like to draw.’

She didn’t respond.

‘I like art, too. I took Sister Jean’s art class.’

She shattered the ice in the room with a question: ‘What am I here for? What did I do wrong?’

‘You tried to kill yourself, Alphonsine. In your dorm room. Your friend took you to the hospital. You violated the Student Handbook by threatening to commit suicide, and you’re not telling anyone why.’

She took a handful of gummi bears from the dish on my desk.

‘I wasn’t being serious,’ she replied.

The University Ombudsman’s report indicated that she in fact was being serious. The Campus Police also corroborated that her RA had mentioned that she couldn’t bother to live anymore, since she was flunking all her classes.

Another student had seen her sobbing in Berchmans Hall, then following after a girl everyone knew as Charlie.

She had made an obscene comment about vaginal penetration with another female student at the obligatory Friday vespers. Father Lawrence told me this with the express request that she be admonished for it.

‘Who is Charlie?’ I said, on our second visit.

‘Charlie,’ she replied, ‘is—or was—my girlfriend.’

‘I’ve never met anyone named Charlie who goes by that name here in the Halls,’ the RA said to me in an email. ‘All I know is that she [Alphonsine] had been talking about a breakup and bad classes, and that she was in crisis. Then came the phone call.’

On our third visit, on a rather warm day in mid-October, I asked her where she’d met Charlie.

‘She was a street kid. She was going to school for history. We’d met in Sister Carrie’s American history class. So we started hanging out, smoking weed, doing things together. But then she texted me a bunch of stuff saying she couldn’t continue, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t either.

The hospital record said she’d been hospitalized for overdosing on melatonin and about a dozen over-the-counter painkillers.

The RA called her a ‘crazy bitch’ and I recommended to his advisor that he not be invited back to participate in his program.

Sister Carrie said she’d seen the two canoodling and talking about how terrible the Battle of Little Big Horn was. That Charlie always smelled of weed and the other kids didn’t so much care as they were aware of it.

‘I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of their learning. However,’ she said, with a note of trenchant regret, ‘I should have said something then.

Charlie was indeed a street kid. No one knew her and she’d most likely hitchhiked to Portland with a handful of cash she probably stole from Alphonsine.

Alphonsine was a wreck. We both knew it.

‘I swear I’m not the suicidal type,’ she said to me, ‘but I wanted to know what dying felt like. To not feel rejected.’

‘I know that feeling,’ I said. ‘You feel like you just can’t go on. Like no one understands you.’

The tears welled up in her eyes and nervously wiped them away, surprised at their origin. ‘I wanted to know why someone like that would leave me. Everyone’s always leaving me. Why can’t I just leave everyone else first?’

‘Calm yourself,’ Father Davis said to me at dinner that evening. The sun had sunk below the mountains and the air was at a singular and chilling standstill. ‘So you want to make her feel better? Have her read The Lives of the Saints. Here, I’ll give you my copy.’

I scoffed at the idea, but the beautiful new book that Father Davis convinced me that from a pastoral perspective, reading about the saints might make her want to emulate one.

‘But be careful,’ he said to me, ‘that she doesn’t go overboard.’

Later that week she called me up after class and cried in front of me again and I embraced her.

‘I don’t think I should be alive,’ she said. ‘Sister Jean thinks my work is good but I don’t know what the fuck I am going to do with my life.’

‘You don’t have to think about that right now,’ I replied.

‘Then how am I supposed to make college work, then,’ she said, sobbing.

‘God doesn’t ask you to make your life work,’ I said. ‘He just wants you to live it knowing that you’re loved by Him.’

‘How could I possibly know that?’ She said.

Mount Manresa is a pretty college to study at in the autumn.

There are sugar maples and bald cypresses and live oaks and poplars that shimmer in the low angled light of autumn. The leaves fall and get blown around everywhere. You could make an Instagram post about Mount Manresa College with a handful of purple dahlias and some spiced apple cider and it could encapsulate everything romantic about the autumn.

After the gym I found my therapist, Father Bronner and we walked through the quad at sunset.

Father Bronner said that I was beginning to personalize Alphonsine’s trauma.

She may be putting on a show, just to elicit your sympathy, he said. And there’s where you got to be careful, because she could be ruin everything for you.

‘I’m sure her concerns are legitimate,’ I replied.

‘Be careful anyway,’ Father Bronner replied.

I went to a Safeway and picked up a five-pound bag of gummi bears. I bought a stuffed animal. I bought her a few packs of cups-of-noodles and some cans of Beefaroni and I put it all in a big wicker basket and filled it with fruit and bottles of purified water. And I put in Father Davis’ copy of The Lives of the Saints with a I ❤️ Jesus bookmark in holographic foil on page 453.

The passage on St Ignatius.

I chose him because when he was young, he was hit by a cannonball and it shattered his leg and he spent many months recuperating and reforming himself spiritually. That was how he was able to found the Jesuit order.

I had been in college, too, I surmised, this is how it ought to be. No one did this for me, so I’ll do something for her.

This is how it ought to have been.

She was surprised when I called her down and presented this offering to her, and I was satisfied with myself that I had coaxed her out of her dorm room like a black cat to a dish of milk, to recover that part of her that mystified everyone else: what was ailing this beautiful, talented girl, into periods of unending mental suffering and suicidal ideation?

She tossed the book on my desk the next week and said, ‘nice try, I guess other priests have got you thrown that I apparently need to reform my life? I don’t need to reform jack shit.’

For some strange reason she was furious.

‘I don’t need your Jesus talk. I just don’t need it.’

‘I hate to break it to you but you’re at a Catholic college,’ I replied.

‘All you fucking dudes do is just admonish. You never listen.’

‘I’m listening now. You want to take a seat?’

She sat down.

‘So what’s up?’

She said that Sister Jean had caught her making out with a girl Naima and had reported her to the Dean of Students. She said getting reported was a violation of her civil rights and that she immediately wanted to quit school altogether and never return.

‘No, no, you shouldn’t do that,’ I replied. ‘I don’t want you to quit school because of that. I’ll handle it.’

I sent an email to Sister Jean to call off her dogs.

I said, ‘I’m sure it’s a private matter that bears nothing on her ability to be a good student.’

Sister Jean agreed with me, but warned me to be careful with her.

The doctors came and went. She was on Paxil and then she was on nothing at all, they said. Then she was on Wellbutrin and the Wellbutrin worked. She had mentioned CBT and they said that’d be a good idea. She was always splitting, splitting was a benchmark of BPD, they’d said. They were sure she’d had a chaotic relationship with men. She had a glamorous and flashy personality but they all argued that she was essentially hollowed out.

I asked her why.

‘You’ve never loved someone, have you,’ she said.

‘I did. I did, once, a long time ago.’

‘But you were never really in love.’

‘This is about you, not me, Alphonsine.’

‘OK, OK,’ she said, relenting. ‘It was Charlie but it was also a bunch of other things. There was a boy named Jesse in high school who got me pregnant. Then I lost the baby. I didn’t have an abortion, I lost the baby. Then dad found out, and said that if I didn’t go to college I’d end up on the street. And then dad died. And that’s why I’m here.’

‘A miscarriage’, Sister Jean said. ‘The poor thing had a miscarriage.’

‘Well number one’, she said, ‘we have the pray for the baby. The baby and the mother.’

‘But I want you to let her pass her class. I want her to see that she has some worth in what she’s doing.’

‘I will. I’ll do whatever I can do to help her.’

That night I was in bed when I heard something fall from the table outside of my room. I got up and saw that the crucifix on the wall—our big crucifix from Spain—had fallen off of its hinge and was now face-down on the ground.

All of us crossed ourselves and Father Zavala, my friend from seminary, helped to hang it on the wall again.

It was around three AM when this happened, and it still sticks out in my mind.

Funny things started happening. The sacristan told me, with some bewilderment, that the holy water fonts in the chapel were beginning to refill themselves for no apparent reason. When the girls got together in the Chapel in Gonzaga Hall for Friday evening Mass, a strong scent of roses pervaded the Mass. Alphonsine, despite her refusal to be preached at, usually showed up to Friday evening Mass, and I saw her there, with the missal open on her lap, her devotion to the service unwavering and her faith in the Real Presence unshakeable. She was defiant and always did things on her own terms, including communing with God.

She wore a blue velvet skirt with a white sash one evening, just as a storm broke over us, rain hammering the roof of the chapel and sluicing down the stained glass windows. At the elevation a branch landed on the roof and the lights dimmed for a brief second, and around Alphonsine was a glow—an aureole of unearthly light—her eyes fixed on the Host now floating above the Chalice— brilliantly awash with what looked like ball lightning—liberated from the priest’s hands. He backed away, half terrified, half reverent, as a richly scented cloud exploded overhead bringing with it a scent of white flowers. When the lights went up, Alphonsine was on the floor.

This I saw with my own two eyes. I never told any one else.

The officiating priest, my friend Father Harrison, was red-faced and reticent to describe what he saw during that Mass.

In the weeks to come, as Alphonsine came back to me like a wounded bird desperate for love.

I showered her with gems of wisdom, things that my own confessor would say to me, as if she was a postulant herself.

She always seemed to shrug these things off, but I knew somehow she was listening.

Sister Jean came in to my office one day, blanched with exquisite drawings of saints who she said appeared to her.

One I recognized as St Laurence because she drew him with a gridiron.

The other I recognized as St Sebastian because he was shot full of arrows, a muscular and intimidating athlete transfixed to a laurel tree.

‘Caravaggio couldn’t have them done better,’ she said.

‘They come to me at night,’ Alphonsine explained at our next session, a gloomy, overcast day. ‘They’ll hover over me. Sometimes they kiss me. Especially one. He always looks like a Roman soldier when he does. He has curly hair and I can always tell he’s near because he has a little crow that follows him around.’

Just then a crow slammed against the window, shattering a pane of glass. The crow flapped its wings violently against the window, then righted itself up, then flew out of the window. She was shaken by this and it took us both more than a few minutes to regain our calm, before we broke out laughing.’

‘Oh my goodness, Alphonsine. What was that all about?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It happens to me all the time.’

She hadn’t slept in weeks, it turned out.

She couldn’t sleep in the dorm because the picture of the Virgin Mary she had above her bed dripped oil on to the pillow and into her eyes.

She said she couldn’t bear to look at the crucifix at her parish church in downtown Roseland because the corpus’ eyes were always open and fixed on her during Mass. She couldn’t focus on the words because Jesus’s green glass eyes would be focused on hers, and he would murmur things from the cross, things that she couldn’t hear. She ran terrified from church, hyperventilating in the parking lot. The priest there told me he thought she was having a stroke.

The statue of St Thérèse that she had in her room stank of roses and the scent was so overpowering that she could barely stand to be around it.

When I sat with her at Friday evening Mass she focused her gaze on the side transept for a few intent minutes, then got up and briskly walked into the foyer. She was hyperventilating again when I found her, and held her hand.

‘I just saw the Sacred Heart,’ she said, visibly shaken.

Father Davis said it was most likely an overactive imagination.

‘OK, fine,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you just give her a retreat up at the top of Mount Manresa. A little hike will do you some good. Both of you need it.’

That evening I picked up Alphonsine at brought her to the Manse where I cooked dinner for her. I told her to pack up her bags and get ready to hike with me the next day.

‘Where are we going?’ She said.

‘Mount Manresa, where we can talk about what you’re seeing without all these distractions.’

‘Um, I don’t know how to feel about that. Isn’t that something you have to get permission for?’

‘I didn’t ask you to feel. I asked you to think about it and let me know.’

She’d been wearing a mustard yellow cardigan with a white blouse on that evening, and I thought that she was too pretty to be a mystic. I surely felt that she must be attracting some kind of evil, something that could not have been from God. If it was so, she wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.

Father Davis told me that evening to watch myself.

When I went to the bathroom, I found that a picture of the Virgin of Sorrows that hung over the toilet was oily.

‘That was her saying hello,’ she said.

The next morning we were in a Jeep ascending to the rocky top of Mount Manresa. It was a bright, crisp day in November and we were under a canopy of Douglas firs on a hike to Castle Manresa, where the Jesuits held their retreats long before the College was there. I took along the Breviary and some Mass linens and a chalice and paten, with some consecrated wine and hosts.

‘I don’t have a good feeling about this,’ she said to me.

‘We’ll be fine, just you wait,’ I said.

‘We crossed a creek called Birch Hollow Creek and she folded her coat around her and blessed herself with the water there.

‘I’m feeling sick,’ she said.

‘How sick,’ I replied. ‘Like throw-up sick? Or like I’m-coming-down-with-a-cold sick.’

‘I just feel sick,’ she said.

Castle Manresa was just a little cabin with two four-by-four windows and a clapboard floor and two cots and a small table used for offering Mass. There was a tiny crucifix on the wall and an old prie-dieu whose red velvet kneeler looked worn and tired. I set down my backpack and had her sit on the bed and we talked.

She said the visions started when Charlie left her.

She said Charlie was the first person she’d ever loved. The only one she wanted to love for the rest of her life.

‘Is Charlie a girl or a guy?’

‘Charlie’s a girl, she said.’

‘Did Charlie say she was going to come back?’

‘We were supposed to get married,’ she said. ‘She has a two year old at home. She calls him Sean. She was going to go to Portland to get Sean from his dad, come back here, and then me and Charlie were going to get an RV and travel around the country.’

‘But that didn’t happen.’

She shook her head.

‘Now what are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to kill myself if she doesn’t come back,’ she replied. She continued: ‘I know it’s selfish. I know you think I’m hopelessly crazy and demented and I can get that. I just want you to know what all of this feels like. I feel like…’—here she broke into a sob—‘I can’t even go on, Father.’

Before we went up to Mount Manresa, I called her docs and asked her if she’d ever had any trouble with Wellbutrin before.

None, they said.

I went to the outhouse—yes, an outhouse!—to take a piss and heard her scream.

I ran back across the empty meadow, with the twilight crashing down all around me, to find Alphonsine on the floor screaming her head off. The crucifix on the wall was buckling, as if someone was trying to pull it from the wall. I felt a heaviness in my knees and I collapsed at the side of the bed.

‘It’s fine,’ I said over and over again. ‘You’ll be fine. It’s only an illusion.’

She was shaking, trembling, a bloodied, excited bird in this dimly lit little log cabin.

There was a crack of thunder outside. There had been no storm that day; the evening was fine and gentle and frosty, a good cold evening in autumn.

‘That’s him,’ she said. ‘That’s him telling me he’s here.’

‘Who?’

She said nothing, but the book of saints fell from her bed and there, on the page where the book split open, was St Laurence.

I spread a white piece of linen on the table, lit two candles and placed them on it, and together we recited the rosary. I figured if she was being oppressed by some evil force it might be better to offer Mass to counter it. There was another explosion of rose perfume that emanated from Alphonsine during the liturgy. She smelled like she had been rolled in a sheet of damask roses and left there, luxuriant in all that ecstatic bliss. At the third decade, we stopped, and asked her if she felt suicidal.

‘No. Not anymore.’

‘When we get back down off the mountain,’ I said. ‘keep this energy with you. God wants you to continue with your studies. He loves you very much. Things will be OK, I promise. Charlie will come back, just you wait.’

She went out for a smoke after the Rosary and we stood there, under the solitary halogen light outside of the cabin, watching the stars.

‘Did I ever tell you about my patron saint, St Hubert?’

‘No.’

‘Patron saint of hunters. They say he converted to the Faith when he saw a crucifix in the antlers of a stag.’

‘Wait, I’ve heard about this. You mean the deer from the bottle of Jägermeister? I think Sister Jean told me about this.’

‘That’s right,’ I replied. ‘That’s who that is.’

‘Interesting.’

‘You know,’ I said. ‘No one gets to experience the things you see. Not even priests.’

She kissed me on the cheek right then and there. I could smell her cigarette smoke mix faintly with that strong rose perfume that was all around her.

‘You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to know I appreciate you helping me out with this.’

I made chili that evening and we ate in silence, watching each other and the two lit tapers on the table gradually melt and dim. I pulled out two more, and then it was time to offer Mass. I vested for Mass in the outhouse and returned to find the room warm and cozy. She was ready for communion. At the moment of the epiclesis, I noticed a small bead of light emerge from one of the lit candles, traverse over my head, and pass through the door.

‘That’s him,’ she said.

I put down the chalice and paten on the altar and stood there, rapt in what I had just seen, this bizarre emanation of the divine presence.

She got up, took my hand, and we walked out under the stars, following this bead of light until it got brighter and bluer, bigger and brighter, until we had managed to cross the little meadow at the top of Mount Manresa, with the frost crunching under the soles of our shoes.

The blue light stopped, hovered for a few seconds, and then blossomed outward into a bright blue cross, like a gigantic bluish-white chrysanthemum. It wavered there, brilliant and florid over our heads, and I was utterly dazzled by its brilliance.

‘That must be St Hubert.’

She took my trembling hand and squeezed it. I could feel my cold hand pulsating in hers.

A pair of dark eyes emerged from the darkness just beyond that cross, and then a face emerged, warm and familiar, yet entirely strange and foreign to me.  It had never seen this face, yet I knew who it was. The blue cross was entwined in the massive antler crown of a ten-point buck, docile and muscular. The saint emerged with the buck from the darkness of the forest advancing on the ground ahead of him, and the light from the cross, electric blue and white and dazzling, illuminated the forest like an arcing, broken electric transformer.

The saint smiled and said, ‘Hello, Father.’

He gazed at me like a lover—like someone who had known me all my life—and looked at Alphonsine and said to me, ‘Thank you for bringing her up here. Thank you for listening to her.’

‘I can’t help but worry about about her.’

‘It’s because you love her. I know you do, Holden. You don’t have to worry about her anymore, though. Where she’s going, no one can follow. When you come back from this mountain,  I want you to tell your superior exactly what you saw. But you will never see her again.’

From beyond the mountain, I perceived a tiny pinprick of red light that became a fiercely glowing orb of fire. It approached us hard and fast, and we could feel the heat from this immense ball of fire. For a moment I thought this fireball would consume us. The fireball descended and accelerated toward us,  going straight for Alphonsine.

The fireball cracked into two halves and a million specks of gold emerged from it, burning like embers. A beautiful man in a gilt chasuble with a red cloak and curly hair and the best arms I’d ever seen emerged from this sphere of flame and stepped down on to the frozen grass. The frost melted as his sandal scorched the ground.

‘It’s you,’ she said. ‘You came for me.’

‘Saint Laurence,’ I said, crossing myself. ‘Prince of deacons.’

Alphonsine put her arms out and immediately the saint’s cloak wrapped enveloped Alphonsine in his ship of flame. I smelled sweet summer lilies and thick, heavy jasmine perfume in the air. I looked briefly at St Hubert with his buck pawing the ground. The buck’s hoof sent sparks of electricity sparking along the  surface of the ground. St Laurence released Alphonsine and she hovered there a little above the earth, a glow of ecstasy all around her.

‘You entrusted yourself to her care and you will be properly compensated for your diligence,’ the saint said, his voice even and calm. ‘While I can’t tell you where she is going, I can tell you she will be in good hands. You have my promise.’

‘And Charlie?’

‘I will let you know in a little while where Alphonsine is.’

‘Do you remember, Father,’ St Hubert said, ‘that time when you and your lady friend went hiking up here?’

‘Of course I do… I think about it every day,’ I said. ‘I have prayed that God forgive me for what happened.’

‘I took care of her. She called out to me and I took her away. We went walking hand in hand up and over the mountains. Look at what my friend has dug up on the ground.’

I looked down, and there, in the spot where the buck had dug up a small patch of earth, was Genevieve’s silver locket, the one that her parents gave her. I picked up the locket and held it close to me.

‘I think you can go back home tonight and not have to worry if Genevieve hears your prayers at night. Where she is, she uses prayer to look after you. I know. I see her every day.’

I couldn’t help but sob, knowing that in all the time I mourned for Genevieve, she had been, in fact, looking after me.

St Laurence bent down from his ship of flame and kissed her on the cheek, and left a brand on her cheek that peeled away like gold leaf. He blessed her with his thumb. I watched as the saint raised her higher to plant a kiss on her soft, supple lips, engulfed in brilliant fire.

I embraced St Hubert and he held me there for what seemed like an eternity, and I could feel his electricity arcing into the very deepest parts of me. I could see my whole past and future illustrated in the electric glow all around us. I have to admit, it was the best hug I ever got.

St Hubert and St Laurence stood a little above us. St Hubert lingered over me, and I felt his fingers, tingling with electricity, caress my Adam’s apple and the cleft of my sternum, reaching into under my cassock into my pecs. I could feel the cross I’d been wearing arcing with electricity. I fell on my knees, and tore open my shirt. He pulled out what appeared to be a longbow and drew a bright blue, flame-tipped arrow. He drew the arrow back until I could hear the longbow’s string stretch, and then he let go. Instantly I fell back feeling an immense, exquisite pain full of stars and gold. I fell back on the ground and saw stars everywhere. I looked down and felt a bright blue lightning bolt, made of jagged glass, sticking out of my chest and stomach.

In the morning I found myself prone on the hardwood in the cabin, with the chalice at my side and at least a dozen unconsecrated hosts scattered throughout the room. The windows had been blown out. The door was blown in. My vestments were thrown open, ripped in two—and just above my stomach, there was a dark blue and black bruise, as if someone had punched me there.

Alphonsine was gone.

I panicked and ran out into the cold morning air, calling out for her. Her coat and bag were gone. The crucifix on the wall was still there, but it was covered in gold leaf—gilt by St Laurence!—and shimmering in the morning light.

Alphonsine did not return to me that fall. In fact I never heard from her again, or learned if Charlie ever came back for her or not.

I was suspended for a few days without pay. Surprisingly, the Archdiocese found nothing unusual about my method of treating Alphonsine’s mental illness, nor did they feel that an investigation was necessary. I got a memorandum from the auxiliary bishop that was carbon copied to myself, indicating that Alphonsine abruptly withdrew from Mount Manresa to ‘pursue another educational opportunity’, and had indicated (apparently in a phone call with my superior) that I ought to be thanked for my assistance. No further mention of Alphonsine was made, but the memorandum was saved to my personnel file. The Bishop saw me at Mass one Friday evening close to Christmas and said to me sternly, ‘the fact that you took a young woman up to the cabin indicated to me a wanton disregard for obedience and chastity, and I aim to see what happened up there.’ A couple of days later, I was told, a large bouquet of lilies arrived at the Bishop’s rectory from someone named ‘Larry’, with a note saying that if I was not left alone, there’d be consequences.’

I had a feeling Father Davis had something to do with that.

The papers said there’d been an explosion that evening we were on Mount Manresa—a meteor—and that may have explained what happened from a logical standpoint, but I know what I saw.

She saw it, too.

The other day Father Davis asked me, in his usual way, if anything interesting or controversial had transpired in the course of our therapy.

C’mon, he said. You can tell me anything, and it’ll be a secret. Sub rosa. You know, like the Vatican Secret Archives.

I paused for a moment, and then smiled.

I said Alphonsine had been normal like all the other girls I’d known, but she had a special grace God had bestowed to her, and that was her tenacity, her difficulty, the imminent mystery of her very being.

The next day there was a mass of white rose petals on the sidewalk in front of the door to the Manse. The other priests thought it was some elaborate prank, and moved on as if it nothing happened, but I smiled broadly as the sunlight emerged from behind a cloud in the late winter afternoon.

That was her sign, you see. That was how she wanted me to know.

 

 

 

JOE: I’ve been writing for fifteen years, and am slogging through my second
novel. I recently published two pieces in the 1001 Journal. I’m a lawyer by
trade, but I boxed and shipped my share of books working in the storeroom
of a craft brewers association years ago.

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