Fatima

 

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            It’s September 1917, and Lucia has just kissed her cousin. It was a wet, complicated event, and she’s not now sure how she should go about removing the taste of it from her lips. Sheep crowd around her feet. She sticks her tongue out.

            On the tree before her, a woman appears. She is standing on the end of the thinnest branch at the top of the tree. One foot in the air, the other on the branch, she looks at the girl.

            “Hello,” says Lucia. “Do I know you?”

            The woman bends backwards until she is horizontal, one toe on the edge of the branch. Her arm turns upwards. A finger points at the sky.

            Lucia looks up. The sky is clear, and there is nothing in the direction that the woman is pointing. Then, a moment later, there is a glimmer of light high in the blueness, spinning briefly before winking out of sight.

***

            “Jacinta, give me some cheese,” says Lucia. They are high in the valley.

            Jacinta hands over a slice, which Lucia eats at once. She nods for another, which is given immediately.

            “We’re very alone,” remarks Jacinta.

            “Of course.”

            “I gave you my cheese…”

            “Because I asked for it.”

            Jacinta leans closer. Lucia watches him come. His lips are parted, his eyes half-closed. Just as he is about to make contact, a young boy appears in the air above them.

            “Do you see him too?” asks Lucia. Her cousin staggers back, away from the picnic sheet. “I told you that it is wrong to kiss your cousin. Now see what you’ve done!”

            The boy in the air nods at Lucia. “October 13, a secret will be revealed at Cova da Iria. But you must keep it to yourself until the correct time.”

            “Who are you?” asks Lucia, standing.

            The little boy does a spin, his arms to the side, his legs crossed. When the spin concludes, he vanishes.

            Jacinta is whimpering. Lucia is staring at the sheep. They, she thinks, appear to be staring back at her.

***

            There are a million people in the field. At least Lucia believes there are a million. They are all staring at the sky.

            In the last weeks, Lucia has been chastised by her parents, ridiculed by many people, questioned by the papal legate, threatened with prison… and kissed by her cousin. But now there are a million people on the plain, looking at the sky – all because of her.

            It is October 13.

            Lucia is in a white dress. She is wearing a headband. Down the valley, she can see the town of Fatima. It is a rough place, the color of mud.

            “There is no Virgin Mary here,” notes the papal legate. “You, child, are a liar.”

            Lucia crosses her arms. “That was the message,” she says. “The little boy said that the Virgin Mary would appear here. Today. He didn’t look like a liar. I am not a liar either.” She needs to urinate. The sun is very warm, and she is sweating. Not far away, Jacinta is surrounded by his family.

            Then the sun falls down; it collides with the thick Portuguese air and bounces skyward, scrambling for its old place in the heavens. It misses, and slides downwards once again, like a child’s toy wielded by an old person. Lucia giggles, but no one else is laughing. The shape of the sun obtains a face, that of a woman – but it’s also the face of a young boy. The sun’s mouth is moving. Words are coming out.

            “Can you hear that?” she asks the million people around her. But they are on their knees, arms raised, and it’s unclear to her that they can hear the message, or even see the boy/girl face in the sun.

***

            It’s 1960. The Bishop of Leiria has a hole in his robe. It appears to have been chewed by a mouse, but he cannot understand why any mouse would have a taste for his robes.

            His library is cold. Despite his boyhood dreams of having a library streaming with sunlight, the reality is much more dim. This chamber is in the middle of his apartments.

            He turns pages, analyzing the old writing. It’s a prophecy, and though he does not believe in such things, he also does not believe in rodents eating his clothes. He pops a pistachio in his mouth and chews the shell. The prophecy ends in a proclamation intended for the USSR: convert, or else. There are many more words than that, but the actual message is simple. The godless heathens of that communist country must repent of their evil ways, else be condemned. He wonders how the Soviet diplomats will receive this news.

            When he is done, he exits his apartments. His car is waiting. On the way, he stares at the trees. They thin as the car approaches the convent.

            Sister Lucia is waiting on the grass. “Well, it’s done. Message sent,” says the Bishop. “You may be canonized for this one day.”

            “Really?” asks the Sister. Her wrinkles are profound, largely a result of the days she spent in the sun as a girl. “Do you think such secrets will alter the world?”

            The Bishop frowns. “Only if they are believed. But I still don’t quite understand why we had to wait until 1960 to deliver a message aimed at the Soviet Union. With respect, Sister, that seems very specific for a holy communication.”

            “My knees hurt,” admits the Sister. “Sit.” And she proceeds to kneel on the grass. The Bishop groans and takes a seat. “Did you know that I only ever kissed one man? And that, a cousin when I was but a child, so I am not sure that it counts.”

            “Are you proposing to kiss me, Sister?”

            She smiles. “No. But you should know that there is another secret to be revealed. The sun brought it to me that day in Fatima.”

            Within, the Bishop groans. He thinks of the additional paperwork that he will need to do for the second secret. “Another secret? Where is it?”

            “Safe. It will be revealed when the world is ready. Today, let us celebrate that the sun has instructed the communists to find God.”

            “Mr. Khrushchev has denounced the progenitor of his nation, that Stalin fellow, but he is unlikely to take up with God.”

            “About as likely as I am to get a proper kiss in my lifetime.”

            She is not unattractive, thinks the Bishop. The black hair and dark eyebrows are still there, and pure. He has an absurd notion that perhaps it would be reasonable to lean over and kiss this nun. Instead, he says, “And what do you need from me today, Sister?”

            “Preparation,” she says with a smile. “Come closer to me. That’s right. Very close. What I tell you now, I deliver in a whisper.” The Bishop moves forward, closer and closer to this woman with the dark eyes, until he is in her warmth, and inside her words.

***

            It’s 1976. Jesse Heslop, a five-year-old child, has been missing for three days. His family searches the wilderness of Montana foothills. Their base of operations is a barn owned by a hobby farmer, and it is filled with the smell of coffee. Hundreds of people cram in to join the search.

            The Heslop family had been at an outlet mall when Jesse had gone missing. The mall is on the highway, at the base of a tall hill, and around it is a ditch. Out front, a water tower looms in the parking lot. The family had been carrying shopping bags back to their van, children behind them. The mall had not been busy. The sky had been clear.

            When they’d reached the car, Jesse had been gone, and no one had been able to determine precisely when last they had seen him. The police had been called. The newspapers alerted. The good people of the community had rallied in the nearby barn and organized the search.

            People had spread into the countryside. Up the hill they went, searching between the trees. The higher they went, the colder the air. Fortunately, the sky had remained clear, the sun bright.

            Reports came in of strange people living in the hills who occasionally kidnapped children, and of strangers who sometimes came through the local towns with nefarious motives on their minds. But the Heslops were sure that Jesse had wondered into the hills, nothing more than that.

            Days passed. The barn remained filled with people. At twilight, flashlights gleamed.

            And then on the third night, the people in the barn were hushed by a sound outside. Darkness had come, and the cool air. Shapes had detached from the trees. They were small, lithe forms, lilting as they strode towards the barn. The big doors were opened. The smell of coffee percolated into the wilderness.

            Through the opening came a flock of wild turkeys. There were three dozen in total, marching in a loose formation straight into the barn, as though this was their natural home. They’d filled the middle of the barn and then, as one, rested on the ground as the Heslop family and the local volunteers had watched in astonishment. They had shown no fear of the people in the barn. They had hardly made a noise. Various photographs from the time show the same thing: turkeys sitting patiently in the middle of the barn, all facing the same direction, all entirely certain that they were in the right place in the world, at exactly the right time.

            The next morning, Jesse Heslop had been found at the back of one of the stores in the outlet mall. He’d been hiding between shelves filled with t-shirts, stealing food from the cafeteria at night. There had not been a mark on him, no sign that that he’d been anything but happy.

            The story of Jesse Heslop and the wild turkeys is considered, to this day, to be a miracle.

***

            It’s 2005, and an old lady is nearly a hundred years old. She’s in a convent in Coimbra, the same place she’s lived since she was 41.

            A bell is ringing, and a trumpet is blazing, but she comes out of her sleep not knowing how she could know these things, for she is deaf and blind. Still, she swings her legs out of the cot and gets to her feet. She has a shepherd’s stick rather than a cane, for this is much more appropriate for a person such as she. For a moment, an image of Jacinta Marto comes to her mind, he in a sweater and with a moustache, two children at his feet and a picnic blanket behind them. The little group is on the side of a mountain.

            She steps into the hallway. Bells and trumpets, she thinks, are very loud when they are in your head. With small, slow steps, she makes her way down the hallway.

            Under her clothes, a letter is kept wrapped in a tube hanging from a necklace. She puts a hand to it, ensuring that it is still there. It is the second secret, held tightly until the correct moment comes. All preparations are made – the Bishop of Leiria had made sure of that.

            When she opens the door to the convent, the hard Portuguese sun descends upon her, but this is hotter than anything she has felt before. The light is very bright. She can see its haze through the detritus of her eyes.

            “Ah,” she says, “it’s you again, is it?”

            Of course, says the sun. I am always here.

            “It’s time for the secret to be revealed, no?”

            If you feel the time is right.

            “Well, I won’t live forever, you know!” declares the Sister.

            Silence, and then more heat. She will take the heat over trumpets and bells, she thinks.

            A hint of coolness enters the fray. Fifty kilometers to the west, there is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. In her many years, she has never seen it.

            “Okay,” says the old woman to the light. She is kneeling. She is holding the tube under her clothes. “Okay. I know what to do. I know.”

***

            It’s 2038. A bus travels along a snowy incline near Geneva. The driver’s name is Fathi, and he is very drunk; to be precise, he drank a great deal the night before, and the alcohol is still in his system. To mitigate the spinning of his head, he took some pills this morning, and they make the world golden.

            There are six families in the bus, with many children. At the beginning of the trip, they had been strangers, but the navigation around the mountains and the stops at hotels have made them familiar. Often, the families on Fathi’s bus stay to themselves and merely smile at each other. But in this case, full friendships have emerged. Laughter is common. The children play with each other. This is a type of love, he thinks, as his drunken mind navigates a mountainous highway.

            He drives slowly. Whatever the cause of his maladies, no matter how strong his addictions, he cannot see any possible way to hurt people. He will keep them safe. He just will.

            Yet as they drive, he becomes aware of a rumbling in the distance, and looks up the mountain to see a sheet sliding towards them. A part of the mountain has detached. The sound gains in strength. Fathi takes a breath. Then he yells at the people in the bus to put on their seat belts and brace themselves. He hits the accelerator as hard as he can.

            The bus is electric, sleek. It shoots forward at his command. The first bits of the avalanche hit the windows on the right side of the bus, and the children scream.

            One of the fathers runs to Fathi and says something incomprehensible. Fathi tells him to sit down. The bus is going faster than it should on this slight, curvy highway. He keeps his eyes on the road, jerking the wheel back and forth.

            A surge of energy hits the bus, and it staggers. The windows on the right side are covered in snow. Another blow lifts the right-side wheels off the road. He yells at the passengers to move to that side, to balance the weight. For a moment, the bus is on the road again. But then the next blow comes, and it is enough to smash the windows and push the bus over the edge of the highway.

            They fall. Fathi is rolling, thrust in all directions as the seat belt attempts to keep him stationary. When they stop, the bus is tilted on its side. Fathi holds the wheel tight, as though it is useful to him in some way. They have rolled a few times and have come to a stop on the edge of the mountain. In his mind, he can picture the rest of the fall – the long, long drop to the bottom of the mountain, the fall that will crush the bus.

            Snow is peering through the broken windows. The rumbling sound continues, the bus vibrating, until everything becomes still.

            “All okay?” cries Fathi. Everyone appears to have put on their seat belts. He detaches his and walks along the tilted bus. “The radio works! I’ve put in a call to the authorities. They will reach us soon!” As he says this, the bus groans, as though it is on the verge of slipping into the abyss. The ledge upon which they have become stuck will not hold for long. It will only take a little heave from the tumbled snow to push them over the edge, and when that happens, there will be nothing he can do.

            He spends the time comforting people, explaining what has happened. He assures them of the response times and calculates when they will hear the helicopters. Long before his estimates come true, however, he hears a scraping sound.

            “It’s okay!” he cries, as the people in the bus moan in fear. But he knows that it is not okay. The bus is slipping. There is no other explanation for this sound.

            Light appears in a broken window. The snow peels away. A hand reaches in, thick with a yellow glove.

            “Cannot be,” says Fathi, but then he runs to the glove. It is the hand of a woman. She is staring at him through goggles.

            More windows are cleared, and then the emergency exit. “Keep seat belts on! Wait!” says Fathi, as he heaves at the exit door. Hands on the outside of the bus pull on the door frame until it swings free. A ladder slides through the opening.

            “In the order I make!” instructs Fathi, telling people to leave their seats in a configuration that keeps the bus balanced. One-by-one, the tourists climb the ladder.

            When the last person is out, Fathi goes to the ladder himself. He hauls his body into the sunshine, where he is greeted by dozens of ropes slung from the barricade on the highway, laced along the slope of the avalanche to the bus. The tourists are already climbing, as people in yellow winter gear help them ascend.

            “How can this be?” asks Fathi. But he takes a rope and accepts help from a yellow-clad person as he climbs. On the way, the snow cools his head, and freezes his sweat. The haze in his mind recedes, until he can barely remember its origin, or why he needed it in the first place. Beneath him, the bus hangs on the ledge, snow piled around it. A moment later, the snow shifts and the bus silently slides over the edge.

            Upwards he climbs. Upwards they all go, hands on the rope, feet in the snow. Moments ago, this snow was like a liquid – a pelting, falling river, but now it is solid and strong, a new thing altogether.

            Fathi reaches the top and is pulled onto the road. A path has already been cut through the snow. Above, more snow is perched, ready to fill the breech.

            The tourists are led along the road to buses waiting beyond the avalanche. There is hot coffee and cocoa inside. Food. Heating packs. The tourists are loaded aboard.

            Fathi sits at the front of the foremost bus. It starts and takes them away.

            “How is this possible?” he asks the driver. “How could you have come so quickly and managed all of this?”

            But it is the woman on the seat across from him that answers, “It’s December 14, 2038, correct? Around 10:35 in the morning on a roadside near Geneva, on the sunny side of the mountain?”

            Fathi nods.

            “There are many places along the highway like this. We did not know where this would happen, or even what would happen. But we knew the time. We knew to watch, and to come when we were needed.”

            “You knew?” asks Fathi, breathing hard. “What do you mean that you knew?”

            She takes off her goggles and hat, and smiles. As the sun gleams through the window on the sunny side of the mountain, she looks just like an angel.

*****

I know, I know, it’s far too long for posting on a blog and I really shouldn’t expect anyone to read this, but if you happen to anyway, I give you my sincere thanks. I happen to like this story. It’s the type of fiction I really like to write.

23 thoughts on “Fatima

  1. It was time-consuming to read. But fascinating as always. Who knows if there really are miracles? I sometimes consider it a miracle that I’ve lived this long.
    I could feel myself in Portugal. And I was on tenterhooks, reading about the bus. Your words have a way of putting me in a bizarre place, even when I’m not sure what the hell is going on. Great writing, once again, Trent.

    • Every moment’s a miracle. Just ask the turkeys. That’s my favourite part of this story, actually.

      I’m not sure whether to take “even when I’m not sure what the hell is going on” as a compliment or a criticism. Probably the former. I guess I could make things easier, more straightforward. Yeah, sure I could… nah, just not me, maybe to my detriment, eh? So it goes.

    • Thanks Darla. I’m drinking wine just now by the way… in the morning, it’ll be coffee. How’re you faring in your life changes? I really should write a story about a person who starts giving up things, the bad ones at first, then other things, then good things, on the way to giving up everything that people do. That would be utterly weird.

  2. I don’t know what was in the message to the Soviet Union, but I don’t think it ever got there. Maybe some things are miracle-proof, or maybe the turkeys got it.

    • I think this part is actually true. Lucia’s message was instructing the Soviet Union to repent of its godless ways and come to the church. Yeah, didn’t really work.

      Did you know that turkeys can’t fly? I learned that from WKRP in Cincinnati.

  3. I was only thinking recently about the sun, maybe, possibly not being real at all. If it wasn’t real it could fall
    I loved it
    I loved that the bishop wanted to kiss her… that was getting warm
    and turkeys facing the same direction
    and that fathi/faith couldn’t see any possible way to hurt anyone

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