A few years before a civil war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the country’s attempt to distance itself from the Yugoslav federation, Carla Palumbo, who had recently booked a trip there, sat watching her niece open gifts wrapped in baby-blue paper ornamented with sailboats, small yellow ducks, and other images that reminded the attendees of the baby shower that a boy was on his way. Carla was wearing a sweatpants and sweatshirt combination embroidered with tiny beads that formed flowers along her breast and down her side. Her sister’s tiny Fox Chase townhouse was nearly filled with two generations of women from various cultural backgrounds. The off-white wallpaper was lined with plastic edges and was peeling and brown at the corners from the years of cigarette smoke that normally filled the room. On the wall above the cemented fireplace hung two paintings of Pope John Paul II and Christ; both attended to by the same artist’s hand, both busts looking off to the upper left corner where an unknown source of light shone on their smooth pallid cheeks and softly curved noses.
The women formed a circle on plastic fold-out chairs to admire Carla’s niece, Donna, who was glowing and round in the eighth month of her pregnancy. Carla was by her sister, the soon-to-be grandmother Gloria, with whom she exchanged glances of delight at each adorable piece of clothing that Donna pulled from the department store boxes.
“That’s precious,” one woman said, remarking about Carla’s gift, a tiny teddy bear with a blue ribbon tied around its neck. The women around her smiled in pleasant agreement.
When the gift ceremony ended, all of the women went to the tables where a spread of food had been prepared. Carla and her sister had made meatballs and Italian sausage in a large, stove-stained pot next to an unarranged bag of long rolls. Donna’s mother-in-law had ordered whitefish salad, Nova lox, cream cheese schmear and bagels all arranged in display on a bed of lettuce decorated with sliced tomatoes, white onions and capers. Carla approached the Jewish food cautiously, and pulled a piece of the smoked salmon onto her plate. The woman following her in line must have been watching Carla’s decisions.
“You should really try that on a bagel, with some cream cheese and onions or a tomato. Whatever you like. It’s really marvelous.”
“That sounds nice.” Carla listened to the woman and tried the concoction. She was bewildered by the woman’s use of the word ‘marvelous’, she would have never used that to describe food. The woman was wearing a gaudy purple cape on top of a yellow and lime green pant suit that she no doubt bought at the new retail store, Chico’s at the King of Prussia mall. Her jewelry looked old and noticeable against her brightly colored and professionally finished finger nails.
She explained, for the third time that day, the trip that she was preparing to take.
“Where are you travelling?” The woman who had helped Carla prepare her lunch asked.
“To Yugoslavia,” Carla said. The woman nodded in understanding. Yugoslavia was brought to America’s attention because the most recent summer Olympics was held there. Despite seeing scenes of the country on the local broadcast, to Carla, the country still seemed as foreign as any other place outside of Philadelphia; she had been confined to this city for all of her sixty-four years.
“How exciting! And what is this trip for?”
“It’s through my church. Mary appears there every year or so, she helps to heal the sick. It’s at a church in a place called Medjugorje.” Carla pronounced “Medjugorje” with a refined accent that she had been working on to cover up her South Philadelphian drawl. “Some Jewish people even go there to see her.”
“It sounds very nice.” The women exchanged a pleasant glance and Carla went back to trying to eat her bagel in a dainty and careful manner.
“I think Donna would like it, I think she’d find it very nice.”
Carla had recently learned that this new child was to be raised without religion so as to allow, as her niece put it, “David to make his own decision when, and if, he decides to practice a religion.” Somewhat horrified with the idea of a boundless soul, Carla remarked in private to her sister that she would have even preferred to hear that he would be raised Jewish. Without a child of her own, her interest in her great-nephew’s sacrament consumed her thoughts at times as she worked through the routine of maintaining her house and running daily errands. The child simply must have some guidance, some chance at knowing God.
When she arrived home, Carla lined up eight pieces of tinfoil with two slices of bread on each. She bought enough lunchmeat and tuna salad to make exactly eight sandwiches. For Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday she made capicola and prosciutto sandwiches, alternating each sandwich for each day. She labeled the outside of the tinfoil with the days of the week. Friday, he would eat a tuna fish sandwich on a roll with hardboiled eggs mixed in. For Saturday and Sunday, she made a pot full of meatballs and pork with red gravy that he could eat for dinner the night before and use for sandwiches for at least two days. After she had finished writing the days of the week on the individual wrapped sandwiches, she began to make sausage, peppers and onions for the night she left. That week, she bought a loaf of Italian bread, eggs and unsliced bacon that would last him for most of the week. If he ran out of breakfast foods he could walk down to the deli for an egg and asparagus sandwich, which he usually did on the weekends. The men at the deli would sit outside and smoke cigarillos and he would come home in the early afternoon, smelling of wine and cigar smoke, just as she was preparing lunch. She wrote out instructions for how to boil the pasta and made baggies of salt and other spices that he could put in the sauce whenever he heated up his meals. When she was finished all of this, she began cooking dinner for that evening.
Chuck walked into the kitchen, tracking rainwater onto the laminate brownish-yellow flooring and threw an overcoat onto the table. He kissed his wife and sat at the table behind her. She asked him how his day was, stirring the pot. They ate dinner every night at a table attached to the wall sitting in two wooden chairs that once belonged to Carla’s mother.
“Now Chuck, Nancy is coming to get me at three tomorrow afternoon for our flight. Are you sure you don’t want to come to see me off?”
“I’ll be fine here,” Chuck said while looking around the plastic cabinets overhead. “I want to get a few hours in at the garage tomorrow.” Carla had grown accustomed to Chuck coming home every night smelling of gasoline. He had a habit of eating his dinner without washing his grease-stained fingers.
“Busy day?” She tried to sound hopeful that business was picking up.
“Not so much,” he said. “How was the, uh, the thing?”
“Yeah, the shower.”
“Fine. It was nice. Some of Donna’s husband’s relatives must be very wealthy. His aunt gave them a gift card for a hundred dollars,” Carla said. “Can you imagine?”
“Must be nice,” Chuck said and stuffed a piece of sliced bread in between his mustache-covered lip. “What kind of baby needs all that? No kind of fancy baby I know.” He laughed to himself. “Some hot shot baby.”
“Well it is nice to give according to what you have,” Carla said.
“If I had that money I wouldn’t be spending it on some hot shot baby that wasn’t mine. That’d have to be one fancy baby.”
She laughed a little when Chuck repeated himself. Even though the church gave a large discount on the trip, Chuck had complained about how much it was costing him nearly every day since she had asked him what he thought about the idea. The Catholic Tourism agency offered discounts for church groups, and furthermore, if there were twelve in the group the thirteenth person would travel for free; Carla was the thirteenth person to sign on for the trip and so they split up the rest of the cost accordingly. It took the church a year to fill in all of the necessary paperwork, provide valid background checks, and authorize all of the clearances to allow Americans to travel to a country like that, with all of the problems with the Soviets. Carla didn’t bother reading up on the country. What was there to know besides that the blessed mother had chosen that precise location to enact and display miracle? Carla often imagined Reagan himself looking over their paperwork and approving the trip, reading her name, and with a presidential signature, signing his blessing. So many boundaries were blocking their harmless church group from witnessing the vision, and finally, the day had finally arrived.
Nancy, with whom she played Scrabble on Sundays after mass at Saint Paul Parish, practically begged her to join. She had already been to the Vatican and watched John Paul II pass by and bless her, as well as going on the church’s trip to Ireland to visit the old cathedrals. Christ echoed in the walls, she would later tell Carla. You could feel Him around you and speaking to you, Carla wanted to cry when she heard that. Nancy had described it so beautifully.
Chuck and Carla ate their dinner quietly and she cleared the dishes and made sure the entire kitchen was clean before her evening activities. She took inventory on Chuck’s meals for the week and gave him a quick lesson on how to run the dishwasher. She wiped her hands on her apron and removing it. She walked up the narrow staircase of their town home decorated with pictures of her sister and her sister’s children, a picture of her mother and her step-father dressed down on a porch with green AstroTurf beneath their feet. She stopped at a picture of Chuck in full Mummer regalia with his saxophone hung around his neck. The picture was tearing at the edges and stained with a coffee mug, but Chuck had insisted that they hang it up, often joking that it was when he was still the best looking Italian in Philadelphia. She always wondered what the best looking Italian did when he was off playing gigs in Atlantic City or Pittsburgh. Chuck’s picture hung next to a photograph of the two of them leaving the church on the day they were married. The picture was stamped with their names in a classic cursive font and the year, 1948, pressed into the bottom center of the frame. They both stood on the church steps on that day beaming with youth, ready to begin their lives of child-rearing as soon as they got back home. But something inside of one of them, and it was never determined who, was unable to reproduce. And as such they never had a child that would have had Carla’s family nose and the grin of the best looking goombah in Philadelphia.
In her room she surveyed the mustard and brown-trimmed luggage and packed her purse for the third time with travel necessities, in case she might have lost her luggage: a toothbrush, hairbrush, two Valium in a Ziploc bag for the plane, and her recently acquired passport which she had showed off to the women at her church on the day it was finally printed.
Chuck watched the Phillies game in his green, swiveling recliner and she sat on the couch next to him with a coupon booklet for that week’s groceries, although she would not be shopping, she wouldn’t even be in the country. She lingered on that thought for a moment, thinking about the globe and how it must feel different to stand on a different part of it, she thought about the distance and vastness between her home and Yugoslavia. Her family had never been back to Italy since arriving in the States seventy years before, something about travelling so close made her feel as if she was travelling back in time, that people would know her and miss her.
She lay in bed that night and twitched with a nervous excitement. Chuck usually talked and cursed in his sleep. He mumbled a little and then yelled quite clearly, “Fuck you.” Typically annoyed and restless with Chuck’s sleep-talking, instead, Carla laughed to herself and then out loud, she could not hold back the infectious growth of joy that seemed to bubble in her throat and cheeks. Tomorrow she would be eating dinner on a plane and sleeping on a plane and only exciting people live their lives on airplanes. She felt adventurous.
Carla watched the skyline disappear behind her in the car and asked Nancy’s husband how long it is to the airport.
“Oh, I’d say another ten, fifteen minutes.” He wore a moustache and a golf shirt tucked into Dockers. Nancy and her husband were Irish and she was very similar to the Irish girls that Carla went to school with at South Philadelphia High, when it was still divided by gender. She was bubbly and fun, talkative and pleasant.
Nancy reached back and grabbed Carla’s hand and said, “This is exciting, isn’t it?”
“Yes, very.” Carla squeezed back and then relaxed herself into her chair.
They were rushed through airport security and given a short speech by the sisters of the parish before boarding the plane. A “buddy” system was established and each traveler could choose who would be there partner. Nancy linked Carla’s arm and they were each other’s buddies for the week. Carla looked up and smiled her much taller companion and Nancy grinned back down at her.
On the plane they sat listening intently to every word of their handsome-sounding captain, his inflection made Carla feel safe. She glanced around at the other passengers. The two nuns sat looking directly ahead and she felt assured because she thought, nuns don’t die on planes, this plane is special. Nancy pulled her hand into her lap and recited, from memory a prayer for safe travel.
My holy angel guardian, ask the Lord to bless the journey which I undertake, that it may profit the health of my soul and body; that I may reach its end; and that, returning safe and sound, I may find all at home in good health. Do thou guard, guide, and preserve us. Amen.
Their words collided on “Amen” and Carla reached into her purse, fishing for her pills. She swallowed the tiny blue tablet as the plane began to speed and lift, her chair shook and her eyes closed. She thought of the ground below and Chuck tinkering with the microwave oven, of her mother’s homeland and all of the people who piloted through the air and all of the people she had never met all around the world, as a synthetic blanket of warmth soothed her to sleep. In the sky, closer to where she assumed God was, she tried to dream of closeness, a lingering touch of a hand magnificent and powerful handing her over to the land of her ancestors and Mary.
The plane cut through the clouds and brought Carla over a deep blue ocean and further away from her home than she had ever been before.
There was a layover in Rome for two hours. Carla and her group reconvened outside of a kiosk that was selling crucifixes and tiny statues. The sisters led everyone, like a pack of children, to the connecting gate and explained their time limitations and emphasized the buddy system. Peeking out the window, all Carla could see was roadways and flat fields, far from her own imaginative representation of this holy land; the distance reminded her of looking over at New Jersey from the Delaware, nothing foreign. All of the airport signs were translated into English, seemingly for her own ease of understanding. She constrained her desire to break off from the group and wander through security, through the front doors and into the land of her parents.
Before they broke up to eat, the sisters led the group in a small prayer. They circled around the elderly women and bowed their heads. Carla lifted her eyes up and peered around at the people circumnavigating the group and looking over at their huddle; she wondered how common this occurrence was and if they were so blatant in their foreignness. She lost track of where they were in the prayer and looked across the bent shoulders at a young boy being led by his mother by the hand past the group and turning back to look again as he was pulled further from them. Smiling at the boy and maintaining eye contact with his curious expression, she felt for a moment a chill of fear and solitude and thought about how Chuck was for the first time since she had boarded the plane. She was hoping the meat didn’t expire and that there was enough mayonnaise to last him until she returned in a week.
Touching down in Sarajevo, Carla felt a surge of nervous exhilaration.
“Can you believe it?” Carla turned to Nancy who was gathering her things.
“Just wait. Wait until tomorrow. It will be wonderful.”
Nancy grabbed her hand once more and Carla experienced a ridiculous urge to rest her head on her companion’s shoulder.
“How long is this bus trip supposed to be?” Carla asked while searching around her itinerary.
“Four hours or so,” Nancy said. “But there will be so much to look at, I’ve heard it’s a very beautiful countryside. Much nicer than anything we’ve ever seen.”
“Well I haven’t seen that much,” Carla admitted in a bashful utterance, almost to herself. She smiled and they awaited instructions.
They walked out into the Yugoslavian air and simultaneously felt the vigor of international travel and the shortness of breath of a higher altitude. Their trepidation of their loss of breath was calmed by a sophomoric explanation of the science behind this feeling by one of the sisters; it was all a part of trying something new and Carla was ready to begin, everything was going to be okay, I need this.
On the bus, their tour guide was introduced. She was a young and enchanting woman. She dressed casually yet tasteful and her name reminded Carla of a sweet young girl, innocent and pious, whom Carla would love to get to know: Nina. Nina’s dark features and tanned skin reminded Carla of the Biblical women she had so often read about: beautiful and fruitful, given all those qualities that God saves for the perfection of the virtuous.
“Hello everyone, and welcome to my home,” she paused. “I wish you all a safe and memorable experience in my country.” Nina spoke in a thick, layered accent that caused Carla, at least once, to smile and lean over to Nancy and ask to repeat what she had said.
“The trip will take approximately three to four hours to Medjugorje. When we get to the hotel, I need you all to stay with your buddies while we retrieve the luggage and organize the
room assignments,” Nina said. She flashed a smirk. “Now don’t you worry, we provide the same hospitality as you do in the States. There will be running hot water and toilets and you get used to the goats by the second night.”
The group laughed and Carla smiled, turning to Nancy and asking, “What did she say?”
“She said ‘we’ll get used to the goats.’”
Carla laughed and looked up at the laughing Nancy. “She’s a doll.”
“Our country is very kind and safe, but there are some things you will need to keep in mind to make it a more enjoyable trip and to avoid any complications,” Nina said. She brushed a beautiful strand of hair from her eyes and smiled with an assurance that was contagious. “There are certain groups that are known to pickpocket so a good idea is to only bring exactly what you need and to hold your purses, or wallets, gentlemen,” she jested at the two men in the group, “directly in front of your body or in your front pocket.
“The Roma and Muslim population will try to sell you things, because you are all Americans and they think you have lots of money, but these are not authentic and there will be plenty of goodies to buy at the shop near Saint Jacob. The best thing is to avoid eye contact or politely refuse.”
Carla wondered how they would know they were Americans and she turned and asked Nancy quietly, “What’s a Roma?”
“Gypsies,” Nancy said and gave a solemn glare towards Nina.
“Remember to stay with your buddy at all times and we can all have a spiritual experience together. And again, on behalf of my country, welcome.”
Carla began to clap but refrained when the rest of the group directed pleasant smiles at Nina in lieu of applause. When the speech was done, the bus began to roll through the gates outside of the airport where men in military attire waved them through. The rifles the men held were mismatched. Each soldier slung around their shoulder a different old gun with wooden stocks, although they were all dressed in a similar steel gray garb with a sash and a lush maroon beret.
The hills of Sarajevo looked as if they were delicately sculpted by God Himself. Carla looked out of her window at the motionless countryside, decorated with isolated little homes nestled into the pastoral scenery. It all looked so Biblical to Carla, a time without buses and airplanes, without cities and governments, left alone to tend to their families and serve God. She at once felt a connection to this history and the fear of being so far removed from everything, a shiver of remoteness sent her back to thoughts of Chuck. Carla had remained awake for the entirety of the bus trip, refusing to divert her attention from this distant and bizarre country. She even tapped on a sleeping Nancy several times to point out landscapes that she thought were particularly picturesque.
The sun was setting on Bosnia as they arrived at Medjugorje, a simple town situated amid an elevated plain and encompassed by larger mountains. There was a glow of light emanating from the town’s center and Carla could see the neatly rowed white homes, all with matching brown roofs, the same way South Philadelphia looks, but instead with brick and cement. They pulled up outside Hotel Martin and circled around a brick fountain spewing light from its center. They were told to gather their belongings and look around their seats for anything that may have fallen or been misplaced.
Finally stepping onto the stone path to the entrance, Carla found Nancy waiting with her arms crossed in front of her, smiling while short brown men in white shirts removed the luggage from beneath the bus. They were handed keys which had written on it a small number indicating their room assignment. Nina gave a short speech explaining the events of the next morning and the amenities of the hotel and they were sent off to bed.
Inside the room, the two women placed down their belongings and each claimed a bed. The room was barren and rustic, each occupant was given a dresser and cot with a thin mattress and recently washed linens. It had been so long since she had slept in a bed that was not her own. Sure, she stayed at her sister’s house in Fox Chase from time to time, but that home had belonged to her mother and so sleeping there reminded her of the comfort of growing up. Carla sat on the bed and before unpacking her things she stood up to announce that she was going to look for a phone to call Chuck.
“Give me a minute, and I’ll walk down with you.” Nancy suggested.
“Nonsense,” Carla said. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to the lobby.”
“Carla, I really should come with you. Remember, the buddy system.”
“I’ll be okay. I don’t want to disturb you. You get comfy.”
Carla was halfway out the door when she smiled and walked down the hallway to the staircase leading to the main lobby. The lobby was dark and empty, not a single member of the tour was in the common area, not even the kind owner of the building who they had just recently met. She saw one of the small baggage boys scurry by the door.
“Excuse me?” She said, just above a whisper. “Excuse me? Is there a phone I could use?”
The man shrugged and walked closer.
“A phone? To make a call?” She thought that he must not speak English and so she gestured a telephone with her thumb and pinky finger and repeated: “Phone?”
The man shrugged again and kept walking by. At this point, Carla was struck by the eeriness of the vacant lobby. She wanted to speak with her husband and she peeked around the main desk and blurted out, into the emptiness, “Hello? Is there someone there?”
She thought about what Chuck might be doing at this hour. She looked at her watch and noted the time in Philadelphia. It was just after 3 p.m., Chuck’s time. Maybe he was at the garage or down at the deli with his friends. Still, she wanted to call and tiptoed towards the main entrance scanning the walls and tabletops for a phone to call her husband. She wandered through the front doors and outside. She took a breath in the brisk night and then caught eyes with a brown-skinned man leaning against a white car in the driveway. He was wearing an old blue sports coat with patches on the elbows. He sucked on a rolled cigarette, the end of which was lost in his thick black moustache and his eyes caught hers as he looked her up and down, never breaking his gaze and pulling smoke deep into his lungs. Carla froze for a moment and went back inside, in an organized panic, never letting on the fear that this man evoked within her and refusing to look back, although she wanted to see if he was following her. She made it up the stairs and back into her room where Nancy had already changed into her nightgown and was getting into bed.
“Did you find a phone?” Nancy asked.
“No. No, I didn’t.”
It seemed like they had been walking for ten miles when the dry air of an open field hit Carla’s face. She shielded her eyes from the wind and looked down at a flower along the trail, growing out of the white dirt. She had never seen this kind before; they sure didn’t have these types of flowers where she was from. It was a red, fleshy flower budding out of the ground staring straight at her, proudly displaying its fertility. She bent over and plucked it from the ground, tucking it into the fanny pack she wore around her waist, and when she lifted her head again she had to jog a little to catch up with the rest of the group.
Earlier that morning they ate sliced fruits with a thick yogurt that Carla had never tried before. She hoped that Chuck ate the eggs and cooked some bacon. Even if she knew what the fruits were that they were eating, she still turned to her table mates to ask, “What’s this?” The tables were old and wooden and creaked when you shifted positions. Each table was set with a glass vase filled with three tiny flowers and refined metal silverware that Carla thought seemed different than the types she used back home. On her first morning waking up, everything felt so different. Nancy and Carla packed their cameras, water bottles, passports and money and began their morning trek with the rest of the group.
The tour guides led the group on a walking tour of the town, explaining the history of the country and the region. Carla heard about years she had never thought of before, dates from the sixteenth century, empires she had never heard about, an entire range of knowledge transcending any fathomable trace of her family, her friends, the schematized order of history that made Carla who she is. She learned about the wars that were fought and were still being fought; the dark-skinned people that settled this town; the imprisonment of the pastor Jozo Zovko in 1981, who was linked to both the visions of Mary in Medjugorje and Bosnian nationalism; all of these people proved the existence of this place, and Carla thought about who they were and how they got there. And all of this, from the sixteenth century until that moment, brought Carla to that singular pathway, bending at her waist to pluck the intoxicating flower on a remote village road.
St. Jacobs was built upon a hill in the center of the town. The church group shuffled inside the tall, yellowish building with two pillars extending up the front. Carla was awestruck by the stained-glass windows; however, she was told that there were no photographs allowed inside. At the altar, six people stood next to a priest, the sisters from the Saint Paul Parish, and that lovely young woman, Nina. Nina served as a translator for the six who stood up and were introduced individually.
“These six people are the visionaries who were just children when they first encountered Mary,” she said and waited a beat to let this information settle.
“This is Marijana, who sees Mary every day.” The crowd looked over the young woman, smiling. She was no older than twenty-three and had perfectly blonde hair and light blue eyes, that looked as if they were filled with joyous tears at all times. Her cheekbones stood out and accented her young, clear skin. Carla said to Nancy that she thought the girl looked like an American and Nancy said, “I know. She’s beautiful.”
And down the row, Nina introduced each of the six visionaries and explained how the phenomenon had affected their lives. There was Ivan, Vicka, and Marija, who also saw Mary on a daily basis; Ivanka, who saw Her once a year, on June 25th, the anniversary of her first appearance; and Jakov, who met Mary on Christmas day of each year when she appeared holding the baby Jesus.
“Each of these young people were promised to be told ten secrets by the blessed Mother. Once these secrets have all been revealed, Mary will stop appearing every day and she will show her presence in the form of three physical world events, which she will tell Marijana ten days before they occur. When all three have happened, salvation will come to those who have committed their lives to Christ,” Nina said.
Carla looked at Marijana, who was the bearer of the knowledge that the rest of the world desired. A secret from the blessed Mother, the details of the final judgment, Carla eyed up this young smiling girl who seemed to have no trace of the heavy load of the world’s fate on her shoulders. Mirijana was smiling and looking around the crowd, as she must do every day, with her soft cheeks and blinking with her moist eyes, welcoming the pilgrims.
The priest began to speak in a dense language with soft consonants. Carla listened and then watched Nina translate the announcement.
“Some of our visitors have reported things like the sun spinning around the sky, changing colors and even witnessing figures in the center of the sun,” Nina said and waited for the priest to finish. “Now please, we advise you not to look at the sun to try and see these phenomena. We have had several guests suffer from permanent eye damage while trying to see these things. You will all feel Mary’s presence and Mirjana will tell you the things she is commanding. Okay?”
The group responded, “Okay.” They all shuffled in their seats, and Carla became excited by the realness of these events, that their wishes for assurance and salvation were imminent. Nina described Mary, from the description of the visionaries, as being between eighteen and twenty years old, about one hundred and sixty centimeters, with a long oval face and long black hair. Regardless of whatever images of Mary Carla had ever seen, she couldn’t help but picture Nina standing there, in old robes, pregnant with immaculate child, holding out her arms.
By 5:30 they were standing on the hill, awaiting the arrival of Mary, who appeared every day at 5:40. The September sun was setting in the distance, still hanging above the hills, casting a deep yellow light on all of their faces and omitting a holy halo around the scene. Nancy and Carla stood side by side, jittering with anticipation, each looking up and down at one another like children waiting for a roller coaster. Carla looked over at a husband and wife holding hands. They were both dressed in department store clothing. He was wearing khaki pants and a button down shirt. They had their eyes closed and it looked as if they were praying as one body; their quivering lips were moving in unison, transferring thoughts and messages through a complex and invisible system of correlation. They were bound to each other. What would Chuck have thought standing on this hill? Maybe he would have felt her. Carla and Chuck would have held hands and smiled at each other the way she and Nancy had. Carla closed her eyes and thought of her husband and tried to clean him up, she put him in a suit with a flower pinned to his lapel. She cleaned his fingernails and combed his wet hair to the side. She polished his shoes and straightened his tie right to the base of his neck. She saw Chuck gaze at her as a new man, ready to be saved.
As the minute approached, the crowd was asked to hold hands, but Nancy and Carla already were. Carla grabbed onto the elderly woman standing next to her, a woman whose entire life must have been leading to this, she thought. Carla held her eyelids closed and a silence fell upon the group that she hadn’t experienced since her feeling of terror in the hotel lobby. But this was different, this felt transcendent and illuminated. She could feel 5:40 approach; she knew when it would happen. At that very moment, she heard that thick language again, this time preaching in a tone that she understood.
“She is here!” Nina yelled over the light breeze.
Nancy’s hand squeezed more tightly and the foreign language filled the air.
“She says,” Nancy translated, “‘When you pray, you must feel more. Prayer is a conversation with God. To pray means to listen to God. Prayer is useful for you because after prayer everything is clear. Prayer makes one know happiness. Prayer can teach you how to cry. Prayer can teach how to blossom. Prayer is not a joke. Prayer is a dialogue with God.’”
Carla could hardly contain herself, she was feeling such a surge of emotions that she shot her eyes open. She needed to see her as well as feel her. She looked up at the same scene she closed her eyes to: the setting sun, the six visionaries standing on the hill, Nina standing next to the messenger. There was nothing there. Carla broke her stillness and craned her head around the crowd, all of the members of the parish stood there muttering to themselves with tears soaking their cheeks. Their mouths were hung open in a euphoric trance as if they were trapped in an unrealized laugh, smiling and bouncing lightly. Carla was so frustrated that she began to squint at the sun in an attempt to see the shapes and visions that supposedly danced across its surface. She blinked and blinked and could no longer look directly at it. She thought about all of Chuck’s money that she wasted and how she wasn’t there to help him all week and how she was not of pure enough heart to witness this miracle. She became deflated and uninspired.
Nina continued to translate: “Dear children! Today also I want to call you all to prayer. Let Prayer be your life. Dear children, dedicate your time only to Jesus and He will give you everything that you are seeking. He will reveal Himself to you in fullness. Dear children, Satan is strong and is waiting to test each one of you. Pray, and that way he will neither be able to injure you nor block you on the way of holiness. Dear children, through prayer grow all the more toward God from day to day. Thank you for having responded to my call.”
A collective sigh travelled around the crowd as they began to open their eyes and hug whomever they were standing near. There were tears in the eyes of every member of the congregation, including Carla who was silently cursing herself and trying her hardest not to break out into a full sob. All of that travel, the months spent filling out paper-work, the difficulty of travelling to such a country, it all unfolded in one angry moment that took only seconds to transpire. Nancy looked as if ten years of weakness was lifted from her aging body. She appeared to be floating above the grass and the emptiness of her pupils suggested that she was lingering in another world.
Nancy turned to Carla and said, “Wasn’t that incredible? Did you feel Her?”
Carla felt ashamed, and with swollen eyes told Nancy that it was incredible and that she could feel Her.
It was about two months later while Carla was visiting with her sister Gloria, that Carla was alone with her newest grandnephew David for the first time. Gloria had left for the grocery store to buy the ingredients for that night’s meal and left the child entrusted to her sister. The child looked up at her and was just beginning to be able to reach with his tiny fingers. Each digit was miraculous; every little fingernail looked as if it was placed there by some grand machine, some perfect being that attended to every minute aspect of every newborn child. God’s presence was apparent in this little boy. The child was safe in Carla’s arms but his eyes displayed a vague terror as he gaped around at the new world.
Carla already told her sister about how amazing it was to see Mary, how unique an experience, and she urged her sister to travel there. She told the story many times to women in the neighborhood, to the women at her church that couldn’t afford the trip, she told the story to anyone who expressed interest. She and the other people on the trip had some shared experience to which they could all relate. They shared a visit with God closer than any preacher’s sermon could replace. She even began to believe her own story.
And there she sat with the child who knew nothing of the burden taken on by our savior and was going to be raised in a household that would not be guiding him in that direction. Something had to be done. After fifteen minutes of sitting with the sleeping child, Carla stood up, holding him close to her chest and went over to her purse. From the front pocket she pulled a small vial of holy water engraved with the skyline of Medjugorje. She purchased this vial, which was blessed by the Pope, for ten U.S. dollars at the gift shop adjacent to St. Jacobs church in the town’s center. When she bought the holy water, she had no initial purpose for it other than the necessity of carrying the sacred fluid with her. It was the only item of the shop that had a practical purpose. She also bought a crucifix for Chuck and a large print of the statue of Mary for her sister.
Carrying the child over to the kitchen sink, where he was also given baths any time he was over his grandmother’s house, she placed David on the cold metal bottom of the sink. As soon as she lifted her hands, the child woke up and began to scream. He swaddled his arms and legs in the air, begging to be lifted again. She hushed him in a calm tone, explaining that it will be okay and not to worry. She unscrewed the lid of the vial and began a prayer that she had heard in the baptismal services at her church.
“May I, who share in Your Life as Your child through Baptism, follow in Christ’s path of service to people.” Carla dipped her fingers into the vial and splashed the water on the child’s head. David writhed and squirmed, emitting loud yelps and coughs as she touched her thumb to his forehead and made the sign of the cross.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “It’s okay, honey.”
She splashed some more water on the child, repeating a prayer and David screamed even louder. It wasn’t working. The child had his eyes clenched shut and no matter how righteous Carla felt, she couldn’t help experience the hopelessness in what was supposed to be a holy moment. Her disappointment from the hill washed over her again. She picked up the unsaved boy and cradled him in her arms, walking around the small kitchen and humming softly.
At that point she heard the latch on the door turn open and Gloria walked into the front room, carrying a paper bag in her arms. Carla reached for the vial and tucked it into her pocket and became embarrassed by her sister’s arrival. She forced back tears and wanted to admit what she had just done to the child, to alleviate the guilt of the futile act. She wanted to share with another person that strange feeling you get when you ask yourself these large questions.
Gloria put down the bag and stuck out her arms, asking to hold this new-found love in her life, this precious and perfect child that she felt as if she had known from the moment she was born and was waiting her entire life to meet. Carla looked at the grandmother holding her first grandson, her arms swinging the child, and became absorbed in the eternity of the moment.
Michael Kamison was born and raised in Philadelphia. He received a B.A. in Literature and Fiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently a student in Temple University’s MFA program for fiction writing. His first published piece will appear in the July 2013 issue of N/A Literary Magazine.