I’m now old, and I live in the Hawaii enclaves where I smell the sea breeze blowing across the grassy beach every morning, but I wasn’t always in paradise. I grew up in a small village beside the Mediterranean, where roofs were flat and houses spilled down the hillsides towards the sea, like sun-bleached pineapples at a roadside stand. Someway along those cobbled streets, I lost my religion and part of my mind. I cannot prove it, as you will find out, but this is a true story – one that every heart should learn. Let me tell you what I so starkly still recall.
Smoke and chanting swirled around us. We were children standing, some kneeling in front of the swinging censer. Too much incense made me cough and I should have wished to be prostate on the flagstones of the cathedral. Nobody knew the real reason my socks had holes in their knees, even myself, that I, having asthma, attended mass at all. It is something you do not think of until you are older and perhaps there were a beautiful woman instead, on the altar – which is what I began to see …
Her face was bright as the moon in spring and there were crystals of dew hanging about her robes. I knew if I reached out and touched one, it would pool pure silver on my finger, a gift from her divine beauty. Oh, Madonna! She spoke but for a little while and I had a feeling it was just to me, then the ceiling seemed to fall open and a cloud carried her away, with the wings of cherubs.
“Oh, Madonna,” I chastened myself.
“What?” a girl spoke, overhearing me.
“Oh no, I’m sorry, but did you …”
She turned away half smugly. Blessed Virgin, were you just for me? The holes in my socks. Yes, it must be true, but then the girl was whispering to another boy and his head started nodding. What must I be thinking – should I even be thinking. Pride, I admonished myself. Selfish pride begone.
Artful Yet Faithful
I loved candles. Upon their flames, Christ is said to walk and His feet never burn. Up across the ragged rows along the long front table, towards the floor-standing slow glowers that must flicker with the murmurs of the disenfranchised abandoned, not to say long dead. Jesus answers all of them. And when they were blessed, I would break off a stick to take home – a souvenir of my personal prayer for the week.
Not once did I consider myself a thief. A liar maybe, but then confessions always end the same, just some sooner than others. I guarded the naked flame under my coat as the hot wax sluiced and stung my palm, I almost forgot about the vision. If the flame went out I would utter the utmost of curses. Not before I prayed upon the crackling wick and joined the waxy stump in my drawer with the others, and, oh yes, scratched upon it a date and the words: “She was here”!
Call of the Dream
That night, I tossed in my bed. So much, I could hear my parents complaining. I felt sick in my stomach; my head was hazy, and my mouth dry. The clock tower chimed ten times, I heard it clearly – I wasn’t yet half asleep, and that was when the dream descended, like steeling your grip against the burning bronze of an angel’s calf. I would tell you exactly what I saw but now, as I mentioned, I live far away. Even so, I cannot resist telling you that it showed exotic fruit, and island sunshine: visions of the distant future for myself and countless others. I knew, in an instant, what would happen to the world: every newsworthy event – then a voice said,
“Yohanes”, my name, “seal these up”.
“How?” I replied.
“There will be parchment on your table. Write what you remember, then fold it over twice and put wax over it,” said the voice, “take and hide it under your candles in the drawer. Do this for Me.”
… but I at once fell into a deep and senseless sleep.
All I Hid Inside
The next few days, for instance, I knew the football would go badly for our side. A slight wince, as a corner kick glanced off the crossbar. My father looked at me like I was a match fixer, if not a gambler. In fact, I expected him to ask, so I preempted,
“we’ll lose – for sure.”
“Yes,” father said, glaring over his bifocals, overcast and flashing translucently along with the grainy TV screen.
“By some margin,” I ventured, but he waved me off, relieved, I imagined.
Suddenly he called back, “And what are we having for dinner tonight?”.
Mother laughed from the kitchen but my face could only wrest a smile. I was more excited than in love, if you would by now understand.
Time passed. The bustling markets opened and the fountains started up again, coughing through the old lead pipes. It had been more than a season since I saw the Madonna and had the dream, sealed up the words and got clean away. I saw life, and pretty women, and I wanted more than ever to tell a soul – that I had the vision – no, I mustn’t tell – the “thing”, oh such strain, that would free the red East, then and forever at war; soothe the famines sweeping through Africa; and a young man in America, such a brave young man, Lord, he was to come before a fall!
It must have been a spirit who whisked me to my stash – I hung slanted, disjointed before my desk drawer, tearing through the candle stubs. Aah! Something sharp pierced my thumb as I fished out the parchment. Drops of blood stained the covering sheet. I squashed the papers deep into my pocket, sucking my cut and departed for the square where there would be other young people.
“Who saw a vision at mass last spring? Did anything – if anything – happen to you afterwards?” I refined my oratory.
The Other Cheek of the Lord
The fountain was running faster than my heartbeat. I dipped my throbbing cut into the water. Something like a scream curled off my thumb, crimson and kelp-like, rushing into the lower basin.
“Is anyone here who saw the Virgin?” I called.
“Is anyone here who heard the Madonna?”
Behind the prancing horses and urinating cherubs, a boy and girl got up from sitting, hidden between criss-crossing bronze and the glaze of floured water. He held a leather-bound bible and she fingered a crucifix about her neck.
“You saw Her!” I shouted, “I knew it”
“I have in my pocket what I can’t show!”
Suddenly I noticed the bible hid a large stone and the girl’s clutched hand, a cigarette lighter. I watched, sideways, from the moist cobbles, through a blood-streaked eye as the stone was washed and put back into the fountain and my prophecy, held up and burnt.
They never said a word … thank God, they never said a word.