Winner of the September 2018 Writing Contest!
Our prompt for September was:
Guardian angels come in all shapes and sizes. Write about a most unusual guardian angel and a time they saved the day.
Dan Fields did a great job with this prompt in his story, crafting an original piece with loving details and a nice twist at the end.
The winning entry:
Father Esparza coughs, not hearing Father Teague's question as the two men emerge from the darkness of the prayer chapel and blink in the sunlit courtyard. The younger priest is still feeling his way. He speaks without assurance, and too softly for Father Esparza's liking. Teague is freshly minted seminary product, all green and scholarly with the potential to be a capable shepherd of the Holy Saints parish, but as Father Esparza recalls from a line in an old showtune, "He doesn't know the territory!"
Father Teague now seems to be repeating his question, but Father Esparza remains distracted. An old man has caught his attention. Gordon Worley, a fixture of the church for decades, is older even than Father Esparza. He looks short but strong in a charcoal suit rubbed shiny at the joints, helping his wife Maureen up the curb of the crowded parking lot. Despite the age of the clothes, a crisp collar and smartly knotted tie make him look the very picture of Sunday Best. The bright morning puts a sheen on his bald crown. Billows of white brow shade his dark eyes. He does not smile, but whispers something soft and kind to his beloved as she totters alongside to take his arm. She matches him in modest dark blue dress and pearls. Their generation still holds that a dignified entrance is the crucial first part of worship. Father Esparza wonders where that idea went. Without conscious effort, the old couple set their pace to the toll of the big tower bell inviting the faithful. With the subtlety of an old-fashioned gentleman, he checks his stride to allow for her shuffling gait. They move in perfect rhythm up the cobbled walk, eyes lifted to the great rose window in serene expectation. If a golden word were emblazoned on every heart, the word on this man and woman would be DEVOUT. Father Esparza catches himself wondering whether, without a career spent in holy vestments, he would have grown naturally into a person of such manifest wholesomeness.
Holy Saints Cathedral is the grand stone Colossus of Midtown. Father Esparza knows how it looks to the hundreds filing in from the overflow lot. Two dozen archways on the far end of the courtyard swallow the slow-moving crowd in great gulps. The aged make their way with determination. The young put on grudging reverence like too-tight slacks. Parents fight to quiet and un-muss their packs of children. The children yammer and jitter out the lingering effects of too many Halloween treats. The Solemnity of All Saints has begun. Father Teague appears to be pressing on with his barely-audible inquiries, but Father Esparza only gives him nod after abstracted nod, playing the soft-headed elder as a cold hand of anticipation gives his heart a faint squeeze. Everything will be clear to the junior priest in time.
As the feast day falls on Sunday this year, there are more than the usual number of fair-weather visitors. Many mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers and so on have cajoled their grown and semi-grown offspring into coming along when they would rather be nursing milk-rich coffee in bed, meditating on ham-and-egg lunches. He tries to imagine the younger people as they looked several hours ago, at one of a thousand boozy costume parties.
Father Esparza spent Halloween with his mother, who clings to life despite the ailments giving her so much dull, constant pain. She does better at night, and they shared a pleasant brandy and coffee with an after-dinner showing of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. After she fell asleep, the father helped himself to a straight brandy and watched the second half of a film about a masked killer causing mayhem in a hospital. He harbors a secret fondness for tawdry suspense and cheap special effects. He also has trouble sleeping when his cough acts up.
Another familiar face emerges from the crowd. Gloria Visconti is an elegant lady of a certain age, a generation younger than the Worleys. He has never known her to miss a Sunday mass, at least not since her divorce twenty-odd years ago. On top of that she makes two or three services a week, often appearing in business attire on a long lunch. He cannot recall just now what she does for a living. At her side is a pretty young woman that the priest recognizes as her daughter, Veronica or Violet or maybe Rose. Hers is a less frequent face around the church. Her hair is a shade off natural color, perhaps the remains of a party costume. She looks a touch hung-over, which Father Esparza remarks not with disapproval but with empathy. The young man she leads by the hand is a stranger. He does not look entirely unchurched, but Father Esparza bets he will saunter heedless past the font and take his seat without genuflecting. An old clergyman can spot a Protestant by the gait, the not-quite-certainty of himself, the stopping short a moment too long at the unfamiliar parts of the mass. He is bound to stumble at the Nicene Creed.
Father Teague registers surprise as his forehead and collar break into sudden sweat, not from his nervous demeanor but owing to a sudden rush of warmth as they pass through the side door to the church. At the sight of fire he looks dazzled and, to Father Esparza’s grim satisfaction, more than a little alarmed. An alcove devoted to racks of votive candles takes up most of the rear wall. The collective glow has roughly the same effect as a roaring fireplace. Once their eyes adjust, Father Teague notices the softening stubs of wax in a variety of colors, from blue to orange to forest green and more. The wall above the candles is a stone mosaic, actually a very old feature of the church that many assume was styled to look that way. The foreground is a row of oval cameos meticulously wrought in colored pebbles, depicting the beatific and heavily Anglicized faces of saints. Each visage is outlined on a field of its own distinct color, corresponding to the colors of the candles. One of the most common questions that non-Catholic visitors lob at Father Esparza regards the veneration of saints. Plainly speaking, what’s the deal? He typically replies along the lines of “wait and see,” believing the fruits of saintly patronage and prayer speak better for themselves than any intellectual rendering of the concept could. He finds the colored ranks of candles a touching illustration of personal faith and the worshiper’s connection to the divine. As the sage old drunk said in one of those drive-in horror pictures, “There’s them that laughs and knows better.” He watches Gloria Visconti light a furtive candle as fellow church women mob her daughter and the young beau, cheeping about how lovely and grown up the girl has become since they last saw her in church. The priest cannot tell to which saint Gloria's candle is lit, but if pressed he could venture a guess.
The blazing narthex only hints at the atmosphere in the sanctuary. The Gothic shift in tone from the building’s reasonably modern exterior takes many aback. Under a high vaulted nave the dusky wood pews are full of well-groomed penitents. All heads are bowed, all tongues held. Old, young, singles and families, every possible Catholic type is accounted for. Long-legged braziers burn in the corners, throwing spidery shadows and pungent scents of atonement over the gathered. Firelight tints the clean cream and alabaster wall drapings. The choir members are like new statuary, thanks not only to immaculate marble-colored robes but also to their uncannily rigid poses. At crucial moments in the mass Fathers Esparza and Teague, distinguished from the choristers by various cloaks and stoles over their liturgical white, will assume a similarly stony aspect. Most people expect more joyful attitudes on a feast day, but the collective apprehension is understandable. Old ways pass into modern times only with a fair amount of friction. At times Father Esparza envies the unenlightened age of superstition. His chosen profession, for one, must have been a good deal easier.
The only figures with any real look of vitality are the beautifully carved saints, high along the walls in elegant niches. Even from below their scale is impressive. Each one stands over six feet high, greater in size than the most imposing parishioner. For those accustomed to more compact and reassuring icons, the magnification of saints and angels beyond the human dimensions invokes due spiritual awe together with a vague sense of unease. This is not to deny the beauty of their artifice. Several are scarred and twisted in poses of agony, their faces transcending righteous wrath and the rapturous anticipation of paradise. Others are gentler, stooped in submission, but even these have a ferocious quality. Their eyes seem to burn, the spark imbued by an artist of some genius. The rudest among them looks twice as alive as anyone offering prayers to them. Ten sit along the main aisles, and the sanctuary branches off into wings at the front where more might sit visible to the organist and choir. Great care and expense went into sculpting them, then lighting them just so, and they are more lively and terrible on this day than any other.
The Blessed Mother oversees all, suspended on an ornate gantry over where the congregation will gather to take the host. Her expression is meant to show sorrow for the sins of the world, but the artist captured a vengeful glimmer that has seldom been put on any Madonna before her. Farther up, on the back wall above the altar, the broken savior hangs on his cross. He has the only peaceful countenance of the bunch, though it seems a peace born of mortal exhaustion and despair.
The processional swells up from the floor, bearing the priests and a holy retinue of staff wavers and standard bearers like a shallow current. Often Father Esparza can pick a familiar face from the congregation as they turn to watch, but for now all thoughts are on fervent and ceaseless prayer. The bright majesty of the opening hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” gives him a brief sensation of a king entering court. One glance at the figure of Mary looming above humbles him right back out of it. Fearing another bronchial fit, he mouths the hymn as he walks. Beside him, Feather Teague looks this way and that in apprehension. He has attended fewer than a dozen Holy Saints masses, and never before has there been such a tremor of anxiety among the flock. The choristers are in good voice for the day, but through long familiarity Father Esparza can hear their nervous lilts and faltering notes.
A hand like a feeble breeze brushes Father Esparza’s robe, and turning to look he sees a sallow man. There is pain in his eyes and the mark of some recent illness on his brow. He begs silently for a special blessing, a scene from a medieval tableau where the wretched beg favors of the holy in open streets. Or like a pop star trying to move through a frenzied crowd of fans. The father manages to touch the tip of one reedy finger before being swept along in time with the hymn. Other eyes seek him, asking intercession for unspoken griefs and sins. He feels a shiver go up him. Father Teague extracts his wrist as gracefully as possible from the grip of a young lady expecting a child. He mutters in a soothing tone, stopping her from placing his hand back on her belly. Already the carefully wrought order of worship shows signs of breaking down.
Everyone settles down a bit when the priests reach the front and begin their invocations. The ushers patrol the sea of expectant faces, instructed to maintain peace and intercept anyone bolting for the front. These people know the routine as well as any deacon or priest, but the peculiar nature of the day taps a primal fear of being overlooked or ill dealt with. With so many voices raised, many fear that only those who demand special recognition stand a chance of satisfaction. No argument tried by Father Esparza over the years can combat this mindset. It is a matter of human instinct.
The first reading comes from the Revelation of John, a stark portrait of the apocalyptic landscape as seen by the redeemed who gather before the throne of judgment. It shocks them all into appropriate silence, and Father Esparza has let his guard down by the second hymn. It is one of his favorites, “Blest Are The Pure In Heart,” but then the rising animation of the congregation begins running at odds with the cheerful song of praise. Parishioners are pushing their way to the ends of the aisles, hoping to inch closer to the altar and take the sacrament before their neighbors. Children are picking up on the anxiety. They whine and squirm against their mothers. Father Esparza’s eyes drift upward to the beautiful rose window. On its inside is a protective grid of iron railings, mounted on the advice of the board of deacons. That Father Teague has not yet commented on this feature shows how much he has left to learn.
By the time Father Teague gives the Gospel reading, the scene is getting unruly. Ushers, tired of urging aisle-standers to sit, focus on those becoming actively disruptive with their cries for mercy and favor. Father Esparza signals his fellow priest to speak up and ignore the ruckus. Near the back, he sees a handful of people slipping out the exits, quaking with fright and emotional overload. They cross themselves with repentant shame, clearly not feeling fit to witness what will follow.
As Father Esparza struggles to make his homily on the Beatitudes heard, he spots the first hints of movement from above. He signals the acolytes to bring out the incense early. The souls in the pews are not the only restless ones here. He rattles off a tangent about the Mount of Olives, watching two altar boys haul the smoking cauldron on the golden chain between them. It is a special preparation, noxious and peppery in contrast to the usual sweetness of offertory incense. Its secrets are kept in apocryphal texts not freely available. He expects the smoke to play hell with his cough, but ever since the mass began he has felt an extra measure of strength in his voice. The congregation, liberally fogged by the ministrations of the acolytes, rub their eyes and try to suppress their own coughing. Father Teague sneezes, watching with alarm, but Father Esparza gives him the sign to stay calm as he wraps up the homily. There is no more delaying to do.
They begin the order of communion, blessing the host as the altar bell rings the miracle of transubstantiation. Father Esparza's keen senses catch the fleshy scent creeping from the basket that held bread a moment ago. The acrid copper smell in the chalice pricks the nose so that not even Father Teague can miss it. The elder priest invites the shoving crowd to come forward at last, to eat of the flesh and drink the blood, and to continue the prayers to their chosen saints.
The first three rows of pews have emptied when the first shadow passes over. Saint Michael, mighty archangel and protector of those in battle, leads the charge as expected. Whirling his deadly sword, he makes a sound like an airborne invasion. Saint Silvia, patron of expectant mothers, is first to challenge him. Swooping from underneath with all the passion of the prayers burning in her name, she swipes with a hard hand to check Michael's flight. They slash at each other, snarling. While she has the upper hand, mothers in all stages of pregnancy rush at the priests, begging personal blessings. Meanwhile the wives, brothers and families of deployed soldiers push past to have themselves blessed.
Saint Cajetan of the unemployed and Saint Regina of the poor attack Saint Raphael. A gash opens in the side of the archangel, nothing serious for a patron of healers, and he defends himself with vigor. Below, those troubled by grievous illness fairly brawl with those without funds for proper care or the means to get any. Saint Eurosia, invoked against deadly storms and a figure of particular concern during a record year of east coast hurricanes, soars too close to the fray and topples from her flight pattern. In frenzy she nearly snatches up the tenors from the choir, but the spicy haze of protective incense checks her. With the cry of a scalded thing she claws her way up a wall, scoring the expensive inlay. Father Esparza reckons she will hang or hover there to regain her wind for another charge, but in her fury she punches clear through the ceiling. Wood and plaster shower down from the yawning hole as Eurosia vanishes into the sky. Father Teague, his instinct coming at the right time, rushes to shepherd others out from under the falling debris. Father Esparza keeps focus as best he can, continuing to deal out the Eucharist to those who have not fled in terror. The junior priest topples as a piece of ceiling beam strikes him on the head. His chalice goes tumbling, the blood of the lamb spattering the retreating heels of his flock.
Hardy Saint Deicolus, invoked against childhood sickness, whirls in Irish fury against the pestilential world. His indignant rapture is a cyclone without a path, drawing in other saints for pummeling when they pass too near. Those mothers-to-be who lean on Saint Silvia now will find him a fierce champion in years to come. Saint Tatiana, patron of students, moves to spar with him. They tear at each other savagely until the contest reaches a bruised and bloody stalemate.
When it seems that chaos will swallow the church alive, a blood-chilling harpy shriek brings all beings, human and otherwise, to a stop. The Blessed Virgin, possibly full of grace but filled with dangerous fury too, spirals downward from her perch. The lesser saints make way for her lest they be blown aside like dry leaves. She lashes out at hovering Deicolus and sends him scampering. Mary beats her wings, blowing the incense clear in great puffs, so that the saints may come down, their frenzy abated, and tend to their frightened charges.
The young man, the one Father Esparza sized up before the mass, lies prostrate in the towering shadow thrown by Saint Agnes of Rome. Her eyes and fiery tresses glow with their own light. His young lady kneels beside him, looking penitent. Mother Gloria stands her ground, though in an attitude of due respect. The grand maiden martyr, pungent with blood and sweat and the dust of Roman antiquity, surveys them. Any Catholic, any heathen, any fool with one good eye might guess that this is a woman whom pagan’s fire would not burn. Agnes is patron saint of the betrothed, which is surely why Gloria lit candles in her name. She hopes Agnes will either approve the union or deal the boy a scorching rebuff. When the saint lays her hands on the prone couple, the touch is so gentle that Father Esparz’s vision blurs. He is not yet too old or unsentimental to appreciate a true blessing. Agnes turns away, Saint Pharaildis following close behind her. That blessed old dame of Ghent is more wizened and severe, her leathery bosom heaving from hard battle. She protects the abused and troubled in marriage, no plush job on the spiritual battlefield, and shoots the young couple a warning look. The saints of the cathedral, limping and bloody from the mêlée, nonetheless offer hands of comfort to those who invoked them. Soldiers’ wives weep on the ropy arm of Saint Michael. Only Saint Eurosia is absent, perhaps flown away to battle a big tropical storm over Florida hand to hand. Saint Anthony of Padua takes the doddering elderly to his breast, soothing them as though they were children. Catherine of Siena takes a moment of rest on the altar steps, looking winded and sorrowful.
By the time the wailing ebbs to a soft irregular chorus of moans, the saints are in their high places once more. They flex their stiffening joints. Those who have added to old scars rub their fresh marks of combat. They twitch their wings, letting loose plaster fall away before folding them out of sight under robes and cerements. Their features are hardening already. With its purpose achieved, the life imbued by mass adoration dissipates quickly. The braziers begin to sputter out as the sky brightens, casting rosy glory through the elegant window. Despite the precaution of iron railings, one good-sized pane has been smashed out. This year’s Christmas rebuilding fund will need to raise an extra ten thousand. Rays of light from the damaged roof and the broken window meet on the floor before the altar. Now it is the silent savior's turn to descend. On the ground he is every bit the towering figure that the saints were, but his aspect is mild where theirs was fierce. He is all gentleness in the wake of the storm. He moves among the terrified, laying massive hands upon them with a tenderness only those who see may understand.
The healing begins. Without the need to give a sermon or one of his famous parables, the kind yet melancholy Son of Man makes the faithful whole. Wounds close, not all but many. Some badly injured find their bodies restored. Some who were lame find their steps easier. Some who were feeble have newfound strength. Some remain unchanged. None are left mortally lacerated by the fury of battling saints, but not everyone is fully restored. Some are appointed to bear their present pain. Their time to be healed will come later, or not at all. They are free to accept this judgment, or not, as they will.
Of the small number trampled in panic or struck dead by falling stones, most are recalled to life. A fallen child, wept over by her kneeling father, stirs as if from sleep. One of the redeemer's better known talents, true, but those looking on make small sounds of amazement. A few are denied resurrection, loved ones huddling around their prone forms in fresh grief. In the face of Christ there shines empathy for their hurt, but also a promise to the patient.
Father Esparza sees young Father Teague sitting with a dazed expression, as though he cannot remember where he is. Whether he was only stunned by his injury, or slipped for a few moments into death and rose again through divine mercy, Father Esparza did not see. Father Teague’s own perception of the event is a mystery, but when the time is right they will have a full discussion of the day’s events. With any luck Father Teague has come through the storm of confusion to a greater understanding of his duties.
Saint Joseph, settling in his high roost, shades the permanently dead with his wings. He is the patron of holy death, his final blessing an assurance that these departed, young and old, were taken with a purpose in mind. Let those who weep find comfort in it, or not, as they will. As the savior turns away, pulling himself up with powerful scarred arms to mount his cross once more, Father Esparza notices the old couple, the Worleys. They slouch in one of the front pews, arm on loving arm. Their heads hang, hers backward and his against his shoulder, but there is nothing grotesque about them. In death each wears an expression of blessed ease. They came in unwavering faith, bearing a life of joy and also of hardships, each with a share of illness or pain on the account, and Father Esparza is certain that this was the end for which they prayed together. Would Father Esparza dare admit to Father Teague that he nursed a slim hope of falling under Saint Joseph’s shadow today? He is not so old, really, but not the healthiest horse in the paddock anymore. Now he will have to hear the test results from his doctor after all. By Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest, he will be lighting candles of his own to the physician saints, Raphael and Luke and any others who come to mind. Whether his prayers are made of thanksgiving or of desperation, he will know soon enough. He knows that no prayer goes unanswered, but answers come in many forms. As the Gospel of Cable Television teaches, “Results may vary.”
When time seems to have stopped, the organ takes up the recessional, a real corker for the occasion by that old Anglican jokester William Walsham How, “For all the saints, who from their labours rest…” As the clerical procession passes into the narthex, the old priest resists the urge to count which candles have snuffed out. It is too much like calling the score of a sports match. He thinks of the battered Saint Catherine, champion of jurors, and predicts a slew of heartbreaking verdicts handed down in the next few months, despite her valiant effort.
Some leave the church walking, leaping and singing praises as in the scriptures. Others trudge silently away in sorrow. The only steady voice in earshot belongs to a mockingbird atop the old courtyard oak. It keeps harmony with the fading recessional. A sharp, rhythmic pounding breaks the peace. A swarm of workers fans out across the church roof. Father Esparza had them waiting with their ladders for the close of services. They will not do any heavy work on the holy day, only patch the hole with a tarpaulin to keep the weather out. There is no telling what Saint Eurosia might bring back in her wake. It is dizzying work, but Joseph is the patron of day laborers as well as the dying. Father Esparza trusts that the saint is not too concussed to look after them.
Outside now, Father Teague has wandered off somewhere to gather his thoughts. Father Esparza is over his petty disappointment at having survived another Solemnity. All in all it seems to have gone well for many of them. He is conscious of the fresh air in his lungs, and though he feels a fresh tickle in his throat as he breathes deeply, he is better able to bear it with the hard work of the day finished. He hums a jazzy hook from Van Morrison, a song about All Saints' Day in fact, and though he cannot recall the words just now he has all of a sunny afternoon, and a whole year after at least, to remember them.
For my wife, who dreams.
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