Wednesday, July 13, 2016
THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN
This is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished novel, the working title of which is “Life and Death”. In this passage, the protagonist, Chaz Dickson, a newsman who lives in Argentina, has received a religious medal (the Miraculous Virgin) from his wife Mo’s mother, Doña María. A former Protestant cum agnostic, Chaz accepts the medal and wears it, as he might a rabbit’s foot, for good luck. But Doña María, a fervent Catholic who boasts personal relationships with her favorite saints, is bent on convincing him that it is so much more...
It wasn't until some time after doña María had made a miraculous recovery from her heart attack and was practically back to normal that I had what I can only describe—and believe me, I writhe a little at the use of the term—as a religious experience. The only person, other than doña María, whom I ever told about it was Mo. As a newsman, and one who had gained a fair amount of success at a rather young age, I had worked hard on my image as a cynic, and admitting that I had witnessed something like this would have been tantamount to "getting religion", which would surely have cost me my credibility as an "objective", hard-nosed, believe-it-when-I-see-it, ultra-critical, poison-pen editorialist. But hey, something happened.
It wasn't the wines of the Eucharist, because in Catholicism only the priest gets to sample the Blood, although, who knows, maybe it was an allergic reaction to the incense. I admit, I'd been to a get-together beforehand and had a few drinks, which could have had an influence, but to this day, somehow, I don't think so.
It happened when doña María was still on a lot of medication after her near-fatal heart-attack, but feeling fine enough that it was hard to keep her from overdoing. A friend, Aurelia, was celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday and doña María said she wouldn't miss it for the world. In her own circle, doña María was a very sociable person. Frugal to a fault in daily life, she knew how to cut loose at parties. She relished the free-flowing wine and rich food and she loved to chat and joke and dance all night long in the company of a select crowd. Her friend Aurelia was what is known in Argentina as a "Peronist of the first hour"—an undying admirer of the controversial political strongman, General Juan Domingo Perón, an old-guard follower who now, in the post-coup 1970s pined for the days when Peronism was more like a monarchy than a tacky democracy and an outlawed, discredited, has-been popular movement.
Because of her untiring political activism at a neighborhood, grass-roots level, Aurelia had literally hundreds of friends—a handful of intimate ones, like María (who, oddly enough, was not only not a Peronist, but had also been an active anti-Peronist back in the fifties just before the Revolución Libertadora overthrew General Perón in a bloody coup), and then scores of political "friends", people who owed Aurelia something, were currently seeking some favor, or to whom she herself was somehow indebted. María and Aurelia never talked politics, except at the most superficial level, because María respected Aurelia for her dedication to a cause and Aurelia respected the fact that María had other political leanings. Doña María was a bit of political snob, a conservative, who thought the populist tendencies of Peronism distasteful, but who found the social cream at the top of the movement fascinating. Aurelia was fun-loving, bright and generous, and loved a good party even more than María did.
Mo and I were worried when doña María made known her decision to attend the party. We were concerned about how her health would stand up to the excitement, rich food and abundant drink, all of which, we were sure, she would have trouble resisting. We told her we didn't think it a good idea for her to go partying so soon after her brush with death—to which she laughed, said, "Nonsense!" and told us to mind our own business.
When our protests continued, however, she said that if we were so worried about her, why didn't we accompany her? We said we didn't know anybody, and she said that if we never went anyplace, how could we expect to get to know anybody ever? The party coincided with my night off at the paper, so in the end, we agreed to go.
Aurelia lived in a big old house with a wrought-iron gate and a little inner garden beyond the doorstep, where María's friend cultivated spectacular red, yellow and white roses. The house was on Calle Bahía Blanca, fronting Plaza Vélez Sarsfield and just a few doors down from the Church of the Candelaria, the parish around which doña María's neighborhood had grown up. When we arrived, something of a crush of arriving invitees had formed at the door of Aurelia's house, and even many of the uninvited faithful making their way up the street to evening Mass at the Candelaria stopped to offer Aurelia their best wishes from the garden gate, as she stood at the door welcoming her friends and greeting her neighbors.
Once inside the house, I was impressed to see the level of Aurelia's influence. Despite being a rather minor former neighborhood party official, she obviously had friends in much higher places. I counted at least five faces of former Peronist officials whom I recognized from the photo files at the paper. There were also several Federal Police officials and field grade Army officers, who were no doubt breaking specific High Command orders by being present at what could be construed as a "political meeting", all forms of which had been outlawed by the governing junta under the terms of the State of Siege Decree. There were also a couple of recognizable stage and screen actors, a Catholic monsignor, two independent political columnists whom I vaguely knew from press conferences we had all attended, and a former contender for the world middleweight boxing title.
Originally having gone along reluctantly for the sole purpose of making sure doña María behaved herself, I now forgot my appointed duty entirely and began to mingle, taking advantage of the windfall of journalistic material at my disposal. It was already past midnight when I remembered María and Mo and began searching the rooms of the rambling old house to find them. When I did, they were at the center of attention, accompanying Aurelia in the patio, and surrounded by a covey of attentive older gentlemen—a former classmate of María's who was now a successful TV scriptwriter of considerable fame, a former Peronist culture secretary, a former district court judge and a silver-haired retired colonel on whom, Mo later confided, her mother had always had a crush. Mo was a little peeved at me for having gone off to do interviews instead of staying with her and her mother, but doña María was delighted that I had been mixing.
"Success," she said, "is in who you know," and then she embarrassed me by introducing me to the illustrious men in their circle at the party as "one of the directors" of the newspaper. "They'll never know the difference," she murmured when I whispered a protest, "and if they think you're in a position of power in the press, they might very well be of help to you in reaching your future goals. Just remember, Carlitos, the riffraff come and go, but the gente bien remain afloat no matter who's in power."
Doña María toed the line extraordinarily well, just enjoying being alive, out and circulating again, high on the social event and with no apparent need to shatter the limits of her convalescence. She sipped no more than two glasses of champagne all evening, ate only two or three canapés and celebrated her friend's seventy-fifth year with no more than one thin slice of sugary birthday cake. She topped off her reencounter with society by dancing a discreet but not unenergetic tango with the silver-haired colonel and returned to her seat slightly flushed with excitement, smiling coyly as Aurelia clucked her tongue and said, "Watch out for the colonel, María. They say he's an incorrigible mujeriego, a womanizer to be sure."
"What do I care?" doña María laughed. "I'm not looking for a faithful, boring husband, just a little interesting male company."
I laughed and Mo cried "Mother!" To which María said "Oh grow up, nena. You only live once and I'm already on borrowed time."
After the tango, Mo kept observing her mother, worried that the excitement and exertion might bring on another heart attack. I was just buzzed enough that the world seemed a harmless beautiful place and I urged Mo to loosen up and quit sheltering her mother. Maybe a little romance was just what she needed to make her feel healthy, to make her feel like a woman again instead of a disease. She said if I wanted to kill my own mother it was up to me but that she knew what was best for hers.
Doña María overheard our terse whispers and said, "You listen to Carlitos, nena. You have a wise husband."
"And you've had too much champagne, Mamá," Mo said condescendingly.
The colonel stood from his seat beside Aurelia and asked doña María for another dance. Mo refused for her mother, telling the colonel that she wouldn't permit it because as the lady's daughter, she would be the one who would have to sit in the emergency room crying if doña María were to have a heart attack.
Doña María looked embarrassed and pinched Mo's arm.
But the colonel, unperturbed, counterattacked, saying, "Well then, maybe we can just chat for a while and get to know each other better." He gestured for Mo to make room and she went and occupied his seat by Aurelia, while the colonel sat down beside doña María and boldly took her hand in his as he said, "Did I ever tell you, señora, about the time when I commanded a scientific expedition in the Argentine sector of Antarctica?"
It was well past midnight when the party started winding down and we were finally able to tear doña María away from her friends. The colonel walked us to the door after we had kissed Aurelia good-night and wished her well. The colonel offered to drive us home. Doña María thanked him but refused, saying that we only lived a few blocks away and the walk would do her good. He promised to call her to have dinner soon. She seemed charmed, and moved with a girlish gait down Aurelia's garden path to the street.
It was a week-night and the street in front of the plaza was quiet. The only lights in the houses along the block were those burning brightly in Aurelia's place from which the sound of canned music and the loud talk of boozy, late-night hangers-on still emanated.
Our house was the opposite way from the Candelaria, but doña María said, "Let's walk past the church before we go home."
"Mother," Mo complained, "it's late and I have to get up early tomorrow."
"That's all right, nena. You go on home. You must be tired. Carlitos will walk with me, won't you?"
"Sure," I said and Mo looked daggers at me in the light of the street-lamp. "I'll bring her right home," I said reassuringly.
"You'd better," Mo warned.
"Oh, stop fretting," doña María snapped. "A walk around the block before bed will be good for me."
Mo shrugged resignedly, kissed us both on the cheek and headed for home. Doña María looped her arm through mine and we made our way to the Candelaria. It was a beautiful, clear, moonlit night, unseasonably cool. I offered doña María my blazer to put around her shoulders and she accepted it.
To my surprise, when we reached the steps of the church, she said, "Let's stop in a minute."
As usual, I froze at the thought of entering a church. There was something about Catholic sanctuaries and their multiple plaster images and imposing altars that simultaneously fascinated and spooked me. I didn't mind dropping in on one of the countless churches of Buenos Aires in the light of day, accompanied by Mo, and in a detached, touristy mood, pretending to, say, study the architecture, record the history of the place in my pocket journal, try to place the artist who had painted the ceilings, observe the comings and goings of the faithful as they bustled in off the workaday-busy streets for a moment of meditation and prayer. But we did it seldom and I always secretly did so whistling low in the back of my mind and silently repeating again and again, "There ain't no ghosts, there ain't no ghosts," like Stymie and Buckwheat in the Our Gang movies that WDTN Channel 5 ran on weekday afternoons when I was a kid back home. I wasn't altogether comfortable in the Protestant churches where I'd been brought up. But their Puritan lines and stripped-down architecture made them somehow more innocuous and insipid. They had fewer shadows and candles and statues and paintings. Their crosses were empty and hygienic, there was no blood and gore splashing walls and windows and ceilings, no stain-glass Saint Steven with a score of arrows bristling from his body, no severed head of John the Baptist, no Christ in agony, hanging from the brutal spikes in his hands and feet. True, Protestant churches were somehow unnatural and creepy with their smell of mothballs, talc and mildewed hymnals — places where you lowered your voice even when no one else was there. But Catholic churches were mysterious, haunting, soaked in a long and bloody history of torture, war and intrigue, festooned with power symbols, saintly images and scenes devoted to the glorification of Christian martyrdom. They made me nervous even when I pretended to be a casual tourist. But the thought of entering a closed church in the middle of the night in the company of a woman who was spiritually strong enough to think nothing of maintaining practically first-name relationships with long-dead saints and departed loved ones suddenly turned my blood to ice-water.
"Come on, Carlitos," she said again. "Be a sport. Let's go in."
"It must be closed at this hour," I said.
"Nonsense. The sacristán always leaves a side door open so early worshippers can get in before work without bothering him, because he hates getting up early."
When I didn't respond, she said, "Please, Carlitos. For me. Por favor, un minutito. I want to show you the Milagrosa."
"Okay," I said reluctantly, "just for a moment."
It was dim and dank inside the sanctuary. The side door into the nave squawked on rusty hinges as it closed behind us and our heels echoed on the dew-slick marble floor. I peered into the semi-darkness as doña María tugged at my elbow, urging me forward into the church. There was a single light on over the front altar. Another dim bulb burned far at the back of the church near the main doors. We had entered the sanctuary in approximately the mid-section, where the gloom seemed forbidding. I felt like an intruder in the sepulchral silence and froze for a moment, wanting to turn back, but doña María continued to shepherd me further into the nave, where, it was obvious, she felt completely at ease.
"It's only a moment," she said, sensing my reluctance.
Doña María was as familiar with the sanctuary as with her own home. She found a light switch on a column a few meters in and flicked it on. A feeble bank of overhead lights turned total darkness to a diffuse, dusky twilight. We stepped out of the penumbra of the side aisle and walked down the middle of the church toward the main altar. Near the front row of pews, doña María pulled her arm free of mine, crossed herself, nimbly genuflected, then stood and crossed herself again, kissing the knuckle of her forefinger and the nail of her thumb. Christ hung in torment from the cross above the pulpit, eyes rolled heavenward, mouth slightly agape, His bright red life's-blood running in rivulets down His forehead and one side of His face from the cruel crown of thorns, arms stretched to the fullest and knees bent against the agonizing pain of the terrible spikes driven through His palms and feet, a gash in His side spilling blood onto His otherwise impeccably white loincloth. Although I had seen many a crucifix since moving to South America, this image seemed particularly vivid and chilling in the somber light and desolate late-night silence of the Candelaria.
Near the front of the nave, in the wide horizontal passage where the faithful gathered at the culmination of each Mass to receive the Host from the supple white fingers of the officiating priest, we turned abruptly to the right, away from the altar. Doña María was girlish and bright-eyed, suddenly an excited youngster, despite her advancing years and now chronic ill-health.
"Come, come," she whispered in a conspiratorial tone as if we were two children crashing the gates of the graveyard by night, "I want you to meet the Milagrosa." I followed her along the south side of the church, past a cluttered row of plaster saints of all shapes and sizes, every one painted in the garish greens, reds, blues and golds preferred by the Italian founders of the parish. The saints stood in their niches, silent and gaudy in their colorful robes, some with wilted floral offerings at their feet, others with the yellow-gray spatterings of spent candles littering their pedestals.
Doña María stopped about a quarter of the way back from the front of the temple and did a neat left-face in front of a tall, almost elegant figure. She stepped back a pace and pushed me forward, centering me in front of the image by placing her hands on both my elbows from behind. Then she asked me for a coin. I unquestioningly reached into my trouser pocket and produced one. I heard her drop it with a dull clunk into a wooden box. Then I heard her strike a match before she returned to where I stood. She was carrying a lighted candle, which she ceremoniously placed in a small jar at the statue's feet. She crossed herself and again stepped back, leaving me alone before the effigy.
"This," I heard doña María say, as if from far off somewhere, "is la Virgen Milagrosa. She is your protector."
I could say nothing and immediately began to tremble, my hands sweating, my teeth gritted to keep them from chattering.
"Isn't she beautiful?" I heard María say somewhere behind me, and still I couldn't respond. "I'll leave you with her for a few moments," my mother-in-law said and suddenly I found myself alone with the Virgin and riveted to my spot.
Something like fear and awe rose up in me and a kind of joy mixed with anguish welled up in my chest. I vaguely and vainly sought to quell the powerful emotion by seeing the statue for what my logic told me it was—a plaster image. But try as I might I could not control my illogical feelings. The Virgin's blue shawl flowed in soft folds from the crown of her head to beyond her waist and the heavy pleats of her white robe caressed the tops of her delicate-boned feet. Her benign, tallow-pale face was more tender and radiant than the flesh of any classic human beauty. Her lips formed an almost sensuous bow that might well have just kissed the gentle brow of a newborn babe. Her hands, palms out with arms open to her sides, begged an embrace. Her deeply compassionate eyes locked on mine and refused to let me go. As I looked into them, everything else around me seemed to recede and an inexplicable luminescence suddenly emanated from her and engulfed me, so that nothing but her beauty existed.
I had been brought up, back in the American Midwest, to believe that tough guys don't cry, and had been able to successfully restrain my tears completely from adolescence on. But now, against my will, against all reason, my emotions welled up and spilled over the rims of my eyes. Tears slid down my cheeks and an involuntary sob choked me. Joy, awe and incomprehension filled me and then melted together in concentric waves of warmth and security that seemed connected to the glow that the Virgin was apparently generating.
With a monumental effort, I tore my eyes from hers and shut them, and the feeling abruptly stopped. But as soon as I glanced at her once more, the emotion again caught my spiritual core in its grasp and brought new tears to my eyes. It wasn't until doña María laid her hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Isn't she beautiful, Carlitos?" that I was able to turn away from the Miraculous Virgin. As I did, I could distinctly feel the oval of medal dangling from the chain around my neck lying warm as an only half-cooled rivet against my breast.
I brushed my cheeks with the backs of my hands and tried to speak, but had to clear my throat before I could say, "Yes, more beautiful than anything else I've ever known."
That was the sum total of our conversation about what had happened between la Milagrosa and me. I never again had this type of dramatic religious experience in waking life. And during the three years that followed until doña María's death, not once did we talk about the incident. Nor did we repeat the unique nocturnal visit to the sanctuary. I occasionally walked my mother-in-law to Mass, but I would invariably sit in the plaza reading until she came out, never again, in those three years, entering the Candelaria—although doña María never failed to invite me to come inside with her.
Doña María died while reading in her bed. (It was her custom to read long into the night when she couldn't sleep). She passed away in the company of two great works: open, face-down on her night-table, lay Paradiso from Dante's La Divina Commedia, the book she had re-learned Italian to read. Open on her lap was The Confessions of St. Augustine. In her right hand, when my brother-in-law found her body the next morning, she was clutching the Miraculous Virgin Medal. According to Alfonso, his mother appeared to have died in complete peace. And why not? When she crossed over, she was surely among friends.
The night of the day of her funeral, the chain on my own Milagrosa medal broke while I was sleeping. Mo found the medal and its necklace in the bedding the next morning. I had become so used to the medal's presence that I wasn't even aware I had lost it. When Mo told me she had found it, I felt a sudden chill, a kind of terrible anxiety at the thought that I had gone through the night unprotected. Suddenly, the Milagrosa was a lot more to me than a surrogate rabbit's foot.
I painstakingly repaired the clasp on the medallion's chain and replaced it around my neck. That same day, I went alone to the Candelaria, pushed through its tall doors into the nave and strode directly to the niche of the Miraculous Virgin to try to re-establish spiritual contact with her and with my mother-in-law, for whom I was grieving more than I could ever have imagined I would grieve for any human being. I stared long and hard into the eyes of the Virgin, but it was no go. Nothing happened. I felt nothing but disgust and disillusionment. She was just another plaster image, a chipped, frozen-faced statue, with staring, painted eyes, a too-deliberately-sweet painted bow of a mouth and gaudy blue and gold-glitter shawl which, I now noticed, could have stood a good dusting. The only light that radiated from the plaster saint was that which glinted off the ridiculous gold-foil pseudo-rays that fanned out behind the idol's head.
When I came out of the church and crossed the street to sit alone in the plaza for a while, I felt something cool against my belly and, reaching inside my shirt, found my medal resting against the waistband of my trousers, the chain once again broken, but this time in the middle instead of at the clasp. My hands began to shake as I stuffed the broken chain and the medal into my shirt pocket. I sat down, exhausted, on a bench in the plaza and wept for a time in grief and desolation.
Later that day I said to Mo, "My chain broke again."
"Maybe you'll have to have a new clasp put on it," she said.
"This time it broke in a different place."
"Don't worry, darling," she said soothingly, sensing my despair and talking to me as if I were a child afraid of the dark, "we'll get you a new chain."
She was so gentle and attentive despite her own grief, that I put my arms around her and began to weep against her shoulder.
"It won't do any good," I said. "With your mother gone, the Milagrosa has abandoned me."
At this, Mo held me away from her and looked sternly at me through tears of her own.
"Don't you believe that, Chaz! Not even for a minute. The Virgin hasn't abandoned you. She's just telling you that you no longer need her. You now have a protector of your own on the other side."
I bought a new chain for my medal, a stronger, heavier one. But it was no use. It broke again and fell to the floor when I undressed to bathe the evening of the same day that I attempted once again to wear it. Broken chain and Virgin now lie in state in a box in my dresser drawer, little more than a slightly tarnished reminder of doña María's love.