When Father Robbie came into our classroom it was usually because one of the boys drew on the bathroom wall or got into a fight on the playground. This time was different. He interrupted our math lesson to tell us about our visitors, the brother and sister duo who could summon the Blessed Mother, who had first spoken to her in their garden, and then went around the world to share what they had learned.
“This is a special day for all of us, and I know you’re all excited,” he said. “The Morenos traveled a long way to be with us, and I expect you to be on your very best behaviors.”
Father Robbie asked us to keep our eyes closed when the brother and sister knelt at the altar, because if the Virgin Mary came to speak with them, as she had many times over the years, we would not be able to see her anyway.
“It’s a sacred experience,” he said, “and we ask that out of respect to our Holy Mother, you close your eyes and pray as you normally would. She has only made herself known to a select few since the days of Christ. Only the most pure”—and here, Father Robbie put his palms up as if he were praying—“are truly worthy, and we’re honored to have Andrea and Manuel with us today.”
“So we won’t see a ghost if we open our eyes?” Stacy Bernardo asked.
“The Blessed Mother is not a ghost,” the priest clarified.
“But what would we see if she does come?” Ron Kurkowski asked.
“Class, that’s enough,” our teacher Ms. Strout said, and Father Robbie smiled at her.
“Just our two visitors in prayer, I suppose,” he said. “That’s what’s so special about this. It defies explanation. If she comes today, we’ll all be in the presence of a true miracle, even if we can’t see it with our own eyes. Some things are beyond our physical bodies.”
Shortly after that, we gathered in the hallway, bundled in our winter coats. I was paired with Stacy Bernardo who grabbed my gloved hand so tightly, it was as if she was seeking consolation. Her coat smelled like a balled-up dish towel and kitchen grease, but when we got outside, the only palpable scent was the outside air, sharp and heavy with the tang of cold steel.
The church’s warm wooden doors welcomed us in from the chill, cozy with amber light and hints of clove. I slid Stacy’s hand from mine and slipped each of my gloves into its respective pocket. Many of the pews were already full. Usually, the weekday masses were vacant save for us school kids, but that day’s service felt important, with so many members of the community in attendance and already settled in.
My class filled up two rows near the front and Ms. Strout made each of us kneel for an introductory prayer. I rushed through a Hail Mary, quickly sat back, and looked around to see where my parents were sitting.
“David,” Ms. Strout hissed. “Turn around and sit still, please.”
I maneuvered my coat behind me to provide some cushion to the tough wooden seat. I sighed quietly and sighed again a fuller breath.
When we rose for the priest’s greeting and first hymn, I remembered that Manuel and Andrea Moreno were probably already in the church with us. I wasn’t sure if they would be in a back room or seated among the congregation, so I craned my head and peered around to see if I could spot them, even though I had no idea what either of them looked like. I giraffed my head and peered around the front of the church to try and guess which two heads were theirs. When I thought I had them figured out, the woman who I thought was Andrea turned her head to speak to the man next to her, and I saw it was just Brenda Flint’s mom with her hair up differently.
The entrance hymn sounded. Readings were read. There was an eternity of silences.
After the gospel, Father Robbie strutted to the center aisle. He raised his eyebrows and smirked.
“As I’m sure all of you know by now, we have two very special guests with us. I should invite folks who can communicate with the Blessed Mother more often if we can pack the church like this every day.” Father Robbie grinned, and laughed with the congregation. “Andrea and Manuel Moreno traveled all the way from Bolivia to be with us this morning, and we are so blessed to have them with us.
“These two young people have experienced miracles. Since they were six years old, Manuel and Andrea have lived with the goodness of the Blessed Mother. They have seen, have spoken with, and have experienced the grace that is the Virgin Mary firsthand—so personally and so interconnected. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.” The priest shivered himself into another grin. “And together,” he continued, “we get to pray with them this morning.”
The priest went on, touching on other famous Marian apparitions—in Lourdes, Mexico City, Fátima—and how Manuel and Andrea Moreno were twentieth-first-century Bernadettes. Finally, like a magician, he called for our guests to appear.
“Please kneel as our guests make their way to the altar,” he said.
I lifted myself from the pew, and peered around in a crouch, trying to catch a glimpse.
Ms. Strout whisper-yelled: “Christian, Bethany, David. Kneel, now please.”
I set my legs on the kneeler.
“Eyes closed, everyone,” Ms. Strout rasped. “Hands like a steeple.”
When the two figures made their way up the center aisle, I was surprised by how nicely they were dressed. I figured they would have been in Bible-wear—earth-colored drapes and leather sandals—but they were dressed like normal people: the man in khakis and a cotton button-down, the woman in an ankle-length sundress and mustard cardigan.
I examined them through squinted eyes—a veil of black-pink and out-of-focus eyelashes.
When they reached the altar, Manual walked to the side, took a robin’s-egg-blue blanket by the reading podium, and folded it lengthwise in front of the altar. Both guests kneeled. The room, the world, the heavens went silent.
The whole ordeal took five or six minutes: me searching through the kneeling parishioners, Manuel and Andrea on the blue blanket mumbling in Spanish, a few of the elderly people blotting their faces with tissues. But in that brief time, I didn’t see anything unworldly—no ghost, no floating spirit—just two dark heads of hair kneeling. The lights didn’t flicker or anything.
I hoped Father Robbie would have been wrong about seeing her, that Mary would have appeared in some blinding glow to reveal our futures, the truth about life, the truth about Truth, to tell us the things we could never learn on Earth, about our loved ones in Heaven, about Grandma and Uncle Frank, about Dixie Dog, about her eating all the bacon-flavored dog treats she could possibly hold in that little stomach of hers. But it wasn’t any of that. It was just two human figures on their knees. Two ordinary people with imperfect postures.
On the way back to school, Stacy tapped my shoulder.
“What?” I said, a bit annoyed.
“Do you think she was there?” Stacy yelled over the wind. “Mary, I mean.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I didn’t see anything,” I said.
“Me neither,” Stacy yelled, shoulder to shoulder with me in the cold. “But Father said we wouldn’t. The Mexicans were talking to something though. I could hear them.”
“They aren’t Mexican, you dummy.”
“Do you even think Mary speaks Spanish?”
I tightened the strings of my coat hood and did my best to ignore her the rest of the way to school.
At dinner that night, I figured my parents would be the same as Stacy and everyone else in school that day, asking questions and wanting to talk about nothing else. But there was only a brief mention.
“That was something else, wasn’t it, Dave?” Mom said.
“I guess so,” I said.
“I just can’t imagine having that power. Visions of the Blessed Mother. Can you believe it?”
She didn’t wait for my response. Her eyes closed tightly and her lips turned up like she was about to cry. I mixed canned corn with my mashed potatoes and shoveled some into my mouth.
“I don’t know if buy it, Trish,” Dad said, his voice deep and knowing. “Something scammy about it.”
“John,” Mom yelped, clanging her fork against the side of her plate.
“What?” he challenged. “I’m just saying.”
And that was it for a while, until I heard them talking about it later that night, their hollow bickering just making it through the wall connecting our bedrooms. I sat up cautiously and gently pressed my ear to the cool plaster. Mom’s voice was an ocean of waves, growing taller and bolder, then quickly crashing into a whisper. Dad kept an even tone, though a bit stern. They got like this any time religion was brought up. Any time God injected himself into the conversation and pulled at their tongues.
I asked Dad about it one time. We were driving back from the mall after getting Mom some silly figurine that looked like an angel in a snowsuit.
“Why does Mom collect these things?” I asked.
“The snow-people,” I said, forgetting what they were called.
Dad chuckled, peering over his shoulder before switching lanes.
“Because your mom likes religious things. She’s a religious person.”
“But you’re not religious, right?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, thinking. “I’m spiritual, I guess. Being religious is a little different. After Mom got sick, I got less religious and she got more into it, if that makes sense.”
“A little bit,” I lied.
Dad took a deep breath and turned the radio down.
“Her cancer took a toll on all of us,” he said. “The whole family. But Mom’s faith is what got her through. It gave her strength. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful she pulled through, but at the same time, I question how God, this all-good being, could condone so much suffering. You were still young when she got sick, but it was hard, David. I barely made it through each day, so I really don’t know how your mother did it.”
Dad slowed for a traffic light and clicked the volume a single tick. A bead of sweat slid down my face.
“I know this is a big subject, so if you want to talk about it some more, maybe another time, we can. You can talk to me about anything, kiddo. You know that.”
I thought of Dad’s voice then and how different it was now. He seemed sore at Mom, but I didn’t understand why. I kept my ear to the wall, picturing the collection of snow-angels in their room, listening like I was listening.
The next day our school organized a small send-off for Manuel and Andrea. It was all of us packed in the large room the school called the gymnasium, even though it was anything but a gymnasium—just two classrooms with the dividing wall removed where students played tag when it was too wet to go outside.
Father Robbie opened with a prayer. Then Manuel said a few words while Andrea stood straight like a statue, her body completely still, except for her eyes snaking along the crowd of students. Ms. Urena, one of the school secretaries, translated for us as Manual purred words we didn’t understand.
“It’s an honor to share our experiences with the world,” Ms. Urena translated, “and spread the good news of our Lord through the ever-holy Blessed Mother.”
Back and forth they went—Manual with his romantic way of talking and Ms. Urena sounding the way she always sounded, lively and cultured.
“We confirmed yesterday after our session that she did visit, which is always incredible for us, and must be very special for you. Many of you must be wondering what she said.”
Ms. Urena’s hands fidgeted at her side as she took in Manuel’s words.
“The Blessed Mother,” she continued translating, “says our church is very special, that we have a strong faith and are doing the good work the Lord wants us to do. She wants us to stay faithful in these trying times and to avoid the temptation of the sinning serpent.”
I raised my hand without thinking. I raised it high, even though I knew we were discouraged from asking questions.
Manuel stopped talking and pointed at me. Silence poured through the room.
Breaking the stillness, Father Robbie stood to wave off my attempt at a questioning, but Manuel said, “It’s OK. Boy can ask.” His accent was as thick as sap.
I stood up, not knowing how I was going to continue, just that I wanted more information. My face sizzled red.
“Umm, hi,” I said. “My name is David, and I want to know if Mary said anything about our class and”—I wanted to ask so many things, but I was incredibly nervous, so my mouth threw words together haphazardly—“and, um,” I continued, “is the serpent the only temptation or is there anything we should look for specifically?”
My voice trailed off. I was outside of my body, staring myself in my stupid face, furious for not being able to think clearly. But my nerves had saturated everything I wanted to ask. I wanted details. I wanted Andrea to speak, too, to confirm that yes, that was all Mary had told them. I wanted to know what Mary looked like—her hair, her skin, how I could speak with her. I wanted to know what happened after we died, if my sins were forgiven. I wanted to know about the things we could never know until the end.
“I have another question,” I said, still standing, waving my arm to interrupt Ms. Urena’s whisperings to the man.
Father Robbie stood again. “That’s enough questions for today,” he said. “The Morenos need to be on their way soon.”
Ms. Urena and Manuel spoke back and forth quietly. Andrea popped her head into the conversation, too. Their whispers were nothing more than lips moving, drowned out by the murmurings of the stuffy room.
“OK, kids,” Ms. Urena said. She raised her hand until everyone in the room raised their hands back. “Hands up, mouths closed,” she said. “Thank you. Now, Mr. Moreno here says”—she leaned into his breath—“to watch for the serpent. Meaning temptation.”
As Manuel continued to speak, I watched Ms. Urena’s face fall, her eyes opening wide enough to burst. She looked fearful for a moment, but when she spoke, her face flashed back to a pleasant face.
She said, “Mary wants you to respect your parents and the teachers here, and know that we are very special in the eyes of the Lord. We may be called by him to do his work, so be faithful and listen.”
It was obvious she wanted to go on, that the man had said more.
“We want to thank Mr. Manuel and Ms. Andrea for being with us this week,” Father Robbie said, “and we wish them well on their journey. We ask that they have a safe trip and continue to share the word of the Lord through His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. We ask this in Christ’s name.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Manuel, and it seemed he was staring at me, too. Andrea tapped him on the shoulder, but he didn’t move. She followed his gaze like a tossed ball and saw he was looking right at me.
Manuel raised his hands, and in a nearly rhythmical motion, pointed to his ears, his eyes, then up, up past the ceiling, beyond the sky, as if to say, “Listen closely.” As if to tell me I was also chosen as he and his sister were chosen. As if to say, “We came to your school for you, David. We came specifically for you.”
My friend Gerald came over that Saturday. He lived on my street but went to public school, so I mostly saw him on the weekends, since Mom didn’t like me going out on school nights. Sometimes I’d watch Gerald and the other kids from Whitney School playing street hockey, and I would beg my mom to let me out, but it rarely worked.
I could tell Mom wasn’t in the mood for Gerald that evening. She was irritable, on the phone with one of my aunts. Gerald and I skipped around the kitchen and through the living room, waiting for her to get off the phone so we could order pizza. When it arrived, we sat at the table together. I folded my slice and let the grease drip into an orange puddle on my plate. Mom patted her slice with a napkin.
“How was school for you, David?” she asked.
I wanted to impress Gerald with something cool that happened, but all I could come up with was getting picked to ask Manuel Moreno a question. So that’s what I told them—about Father Robbie not wanting anyone to ask questions but how the man picked me anyway.
“Well, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” Mom grinned. “What’d you ask?”
I realized again how much I blew it. How I had the opportunity for divine intervention and completely, utterly blew it. And just like earlier that day I felt rushed to give the perfect response.
“I asked what God wanted from me,” I said.
“Well, what does God want from you?” Gerald asked. “If I were God, I’d want you to get me another slice.”
Mom didn’t reprimand him with her eyes like she usually did, which I knew meant she didn’t want the question go unanswered.
“And,” she sang, reaching into the pizza box for Gerald.
“At first,” I said, “they didn’t really say anything. Some generic stuff anybody would have said. But later, before they left, the guy came up to me and said to listen closely, that God was waiting to talk to me.”
“Are you pulling our leg, David?” Mom asked. Gerald went into a minor coughing fit.
“No, I swear,” I said, putting my greasy hands under my legs and crossing my fingers.
I felt a rush of energy then, like something was taking over my body. I leaned into my glass of Pepsi and lifted it with my mouth, drinking it like a man with no arms. Gerald and I did this sometimes, and Mom hated it. I tried to gulp the soda down fast, but the bubbles tickled my throat. The filmy liquid overflowed from my mouth and streamed down my chin. When I went to set the cup back on the table, tilting my head forward to steady the glass, it tipped sideways. Mom stood up.
“Look at yourself,” she said in her angry-mother voice, “Because you need to show off. Get up, and clean up the mess you made. Up,” she said.
I felt so stupid with her like that in front of Gerald, the red on my face and warmth like a space heater.
“Now,” she hissed.
I grabbed paper towels from the kitchen and rushed back to pat the chair and make sure nothing got on the floor.
“Get the Windex. I don’t want any ants in here,” she said. “Jesus, David.”
Gerald silenced a snicker.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“And after you wipe up the soda, you and Gerald can clean up dinner. How does that sound? And don’t you dare wipe crumbs on my floor.”
As Gerald and I tidied up, I didn’t give what I told them a second thought. Mom was giving me the silent treatment, standing by the table with her arms crossed, surveying our clean-up. I was just hoping Dad was later than usual so I wouldn’t get an earful from him too.
“Way to go, Day-veed,” Gerald said.
Mom gave him a look and left the room.
Dad didn’t come home until after eight that night, which was a little weird. Even weirder was Mom didn’t come down from her room. I was going to knock on her door and ask if Gerald could sleep over, but decided that Dad would be an easier target.
When I heard Dad fidgeting with the microwave, I made my way downstairs. I rushed into the kitchen because I knew if I took too long, Gerald would unpause our video game and I would lose a bunch of coins.
“Dad,” I said, sliding on the tile floor in my socks.
“What’s up, bud?”
He looked tired.
“Can Gerald sleep over tonight? I was gonna ask Mom but she—”
“Not tonight, buddy,” he said to the buttons on the microwave. “Not tonight, OK?”
I could have pressed on, but I heard the music of the game start again from upstairs, so I rushed back to the second floor.
After Gerald went home, I sat next to Dad on the couch. We sat quietly for some time—Dad sleeping, the TV showing a dramatized car chase, me watching the screen mindlessly. He didn’t wake until I changed the channel, sucking in a half snore and lolling his head.
“I was watching that,” he groaned.
“Looked like you were,” I smiled.
He patted around, searching for his glasses.
“So how was school?” he asked. “Those people came again today, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, catching his yawn.
Dad muted the TV, then unmuted it, ultimately deciding to lower the volume a few bars instead.
“Your mother told me they took a particular interest in you?”
“Yeah. I got to ask them a question,” I said.
“Oh yeah? What kind of question?”
Dad breathed deeply and pushed himself up into a healthier posture.
“I just raised my hand and they picked me,” I said.
“And what did you say?” he pressed.
“Nothing really. The whole thing was kind of boring. I mean, it’s not like they’re saints or anything. Not real saints anyway.”
“Your mom told me the man came up to you in class?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I wasn’t sure why he was talking to me like that, like I did something wrong. “But he didn’t really say anything,” I told him. “The guy didn’t even speak English. It was like sign language or something.”
“Sign language?” he said, his voice growing an octave higher.
“Can you show me?”
Dad got like this sometimes. Weird and in everyone’s business. I should have just stayed upstairs with my game.
“Show me,” he said again, kinder this time, and I did, with the rhythmic movements of a conductor, pointing to my ears, my eyes, and then at the ceiling.
“That was it,” I said. “But it was creepy. Like he was talking to me in my brain. Like fortune telling. It was like he was reading my fears.”
“What do you mean, reading your fears?” He tilted his head like a dog’s.
The family room felt like a room from a scary movie then. The crazy father, dazed and unsettled in the flicker of the TV glare.
“Just fear. I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t know.
“Of what?” he sputtered. “Wait, you’re not afraid of anyone at the school are you?”
“No,” I said, annoyed.
“You know you can talk to me about anything, David. You know, you can tell me if something—”
“Of God,” I said, nearly yelling. Where had it come from? I must have been thinking it for a while now. Before the Morenos. Before everything. But it was so much heavier now. “I’m afraid of God; OK?”
I wasn’t expecting the outburst or the tears. I felt like a baby, unable to control my impulses. I stared ahead, felt Dad looking back at me. I felt other eyes, too. Felt the spirits watching from behind every corner in the house.
“What do you mean? How are you afraid of God?” He looked both interested and vacant, like he was two different people at once. The scary movie dad and the TV drama dad. “Is this about Mom calling me an atheist the other night?”
What the heck was an atheist?
“No,” I said. “I don’t want God to come to me. I don’t want to talk to Mary. I don’t want any of them coming to me,” I said. “I just want to be left alone.”
I was crying again.
“Is that what that man told you? That God would visit you too?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what they wanted to tell me.”
My heart was knocking against my chest, hot tears turning cold on my face.
“Is that what’s really bothering you? Listen, David. I don’t think you have to worry about anyone coming for you. Or to you, I mean. Ghosts and all that.”
“I don’t want them to,” I said. “But I’m not sure they know that.”
“They who? The brother and sister?”
“No. God and Mary and them.”
Dad took a deep breath.
“Sometimes not knowing is scarier than knowing,” he said. “That’s why so many religious people live in fear. That’s where it thrives. Religions thrive on the not-knowing.”
Later that night, my room felt stuffy, like there were other bodies occupying the room. My bed was firm, my mind unrested. I breathed in, breathed out. I kicked off the covers and pulled them back over my body. Sometime after two, my body gave into its exhaustion. I half expected an omnipotent light to break from the walls and wake me, but the light that broke in came from behind the thin curtains and smelled of morning. It wasn’t a spirit, but my mom jostling my body awake.
“Let’s go, David. I want to make eleven o’clock mass. Brush your teeth and get dressed.”
When we got to church, it smelled older than usual, like the wood has been rotting for years from the rafters and behind the walls. Like the cross behind Jesus’ sunken body was waterlogged from all his blood and sweat.
I stared at the crucified Christ during the songs and the readings. I watched his eyes, waiting for them to blink. I watched his hands for the slightest twitch. I waited for the wound in his side to pulse blood, to turn gangrenous.
I shook the thoughts from my head, finding them unsuitable for such a holy place. Instead, I tried to imagine Mary coming through the ceiling or from behind the altar. The blinding white, her flowing garment, her sanctity.
“The most surreal thing happened to me last night,” Father Robbie said during the homily. “It was not forty-eight hours since our visitors departed from here that I found a snake in the parish garden. If it’s not too cold, I like to sit there at dusk and contemplate the beauty of nature—the fruits and vegetables the Lord has blessed us with—and there among the winter leeks was a garden snake. It reminded me of Manuel warning us about the serpent. Now, I don’t think this was the evil beast Manuel was talking about—it was a cute little thing, believe it or not, with really pretty yellows and reds on its skin, but it was a great reminder that temptation can hide in the most ordinary places, right under our noses. And just because they are small temptations doesn’t mean they aren’t venomous. Luckily I don’t think that little guy was.”
I could see the snake as he spoke of it, the reds and yellows, the way it moved, so unconcerned with Father Robbie there on the cement bench. I wondered what I would have done if it was me the snake had slithered past, and if this telling of the snake was some divine warning of things to come. I tried to find clues in its meaning, what the colors could represent, the garden. Were there details missing? Some he left out on purpose?
On our way home, I asked my parents what they thought happened to the snake.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked.
“Did he kill it, you think?”
“Someone probably called animal control,” she said. “Put it deep in the woods.”
“Is that what you think animal control does?” Dad laughed. “That snake is long gone, kiddo. You don’t have to worry about that. Unless Father Robbie and the nuns wanted a new parish pet.”
“Gross,” Mom crooned.
The rest of the ride home, we didn’t say anything. I scratched at my skin in silence, itchy with invisible bugs. Itchy with slithering reptiles.
“You think there are more snakes out there?” I asked.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” Mom said. “Gives me the heebie jeebies.”
“Snakes usually do their own thing,” Dad said. “But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be more of them. Maybe Father Robbie made some snake soup.”
Dad reached his arm over the center console and tickled Mom’s thigh. She yelped and slapped his leg.
It was nice to see them laugh together. Nice to have my dad not poke holes in everything the priest said that day. And even though my parents seemed bright and animated, there was still that heaviness in the back seat of the car. Diffused venom in the air.
I thought of the visitor and the warning signs. I thought about Ms. Urena’s eyes going wide, the man speaking in lengths that I know weren’t fully translated. I thought about the snake in the garden, of Father Robbie speaking to it in tongues. I closed my eyes and saw hundreds of snakes covering the priest’s body, finding their way into his mouth and slithering out of his ears.
I forced my eyes back open, felt my heartbeat relax.
I peered between the seats at my dad’s hand on the gear shift, my mom’s hand on top of his. I took a deep breath in and smiled. When I let out the long, overdrawn exhale, it whistled high from my nostrils, like two tiny snakes were somewhere inside. Somewhere still. Somewhere waiting.
Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out, and children’s picture book titled Uma the Umbrella. His work can be found in Maudlin House, Literary Orphans, The Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, CHEAP POP, and others.