by Carolyn Oliver
In September the monsignor came back from Medjugorje with a tighter smile and a looser cassock. Gone was his genial ruddiness, replaced by a febrile intensity born, we assumed, from what he had witnessed in the Bosnian hills. At every Mass there was a special collection for the children of Medjugorje, and when the church received a shipment of a dozen boxes of blessed silver crucifixes on silky lengths of black cord, even the junior high boys put them on, cowed by the monsignor’s stern gaze. His homilies no longer featured gentle tales of his boyhood shenanigans; now he exhorted us to fast, to pray, to consider what we could do to ease the pain our sins wrought upon the Blessed Mother. When he delivered Communion, his eyes locked on ours with new fervor.
On the steps after Mass, parishioners said that by the time the poinsettias appeared around the Christmas altar his good humor would return. But then, during the mid-September heat wave that signaled the end of another wilting Cleveland summer, the monsignor’s stately silver Roadmaster, a great whale of a car, disappeared, replaced by an iridescent maroon hatchback at least a decade old. Next, our grandmother reported that the monsignor had moved into the rectory, setting up a cot in his office until one of the small attic spaces could be converted to a bedroom. She had it from the monsignor’s secretary that the monsignor had written to the bishop of the diocese, asking that his former residence be sold to the town historical society and the proceeds devoted to restoring the Marian grotto behind the elementary school.
The old house was a gabled Victorian half a mile from the church, so large it required a full-time housekeeper, a serious, pale widow named Mrs. Novak who was as out of place in the close-knit parish as the Victorian was among the modest postwar capes and colonials that filled the neighborhood. Though the monsignor’s house had always been available for parish events (wakes in the parlor, youth group meetings in the library), there had always been an element in the parish that deplored its opulence, and whispered about the monsignor’s unseemly proximity to an unmarried woman, even though she’d moved out of the monsignor’s house—though where to, nobody knew—five years before the trip to Medjugore. Now the grumblers scratched their heads, perplexed but pleased.
Strictly speaking a priest cannot be said to have intimates, but those who knew him best and the members of the over-fifty group who had traveled with him to Medjugorje were equally bewildered by the monsignor’s refusal to detail what he had experienced. The trip was worth all the fundraising spaghetti suppers and fish fries, the pilgrims said: the countryside extraordinarily beautiful, the townspeople welcoming, the young visionaries modest and devout. They felt a renewed sense of faith, but they had not seen the Queen of Peace, nor heard her voice. But the monsignor must have, they said.
Two weeks into October, when Nat and I woke to catch the bus in darkness and it seemed the cold rain would never stop, the sign used only for St. Blaise’s summer festival appeared in front of the parish, advertising a penance service to be held late on Halloween night, in preparation for Sunday’s All Souls’ Day Mass. Our mother insisted that we attend, since now that we went to the public high school it had been far too long since we’d gone to confession. Dread gnawed on my innards as I considered confessing more than the usual sins—fighting with Nat, taking the Lord’s name in vain, telling white lies—and ruminated over the monsignor’s latest exhortation: “You must—Our Lady begs you!—cut all the ties that bind you to your sins.”
To distract myself I studied the monsignor, noting his steady weight loss, his deep genuflections, his purposeful stride that sent his vestments flowing out behind him like a manta ray’s wings. What he had seen or not seen consumed me, though I struggled to interest anyone else. My father, Jewish, had never met the monsignor, and my mother only made noncommittal noises when I presented my findings. Nat’s initial interest faded as he adjusted to his unexpected popularity at school. I stopped fighting with him over whose turn it was to use the phone, instead using the evenings to scour the Plain Dealer for articles about the Marian appearances, until I realized that they were no longer considered newsworthy. I told the librarians at our neighborhood branch who helped me with the microfiche that I was working on a research project for school. I came to know the red roofs of Medjugorje, the twin clock towers of its church, the rocky outcroppings and gnarled trees at the site where Mary was said to appear. And, gray and pixelated in the newspapers, the faces of the visionaries as they prayed, surrounded by swarms of believers.
Caught up in tales of the sun overswept with crosses and human hearts, comparing the messages of peace to the monsignor’s homilies, I started missing rehearsals for As You Like It, figuring it didn’t matter since my part was so small. Then I nearly forgot the Wray twins’ Halloween party, which I’d promised to take Nat to if he’d keep his mouth shut about what he’d overheard between me and Steph on the phone late one night. As was their embarrassing habit, our parents called to make sure the other parents would be there, but Mr. Wray failed to mention that he and his wife were legendarily permissive, the twins’ parties turning into minor bacchanals with remarkable regularity.
Mom had long ago given up her insistence that we dress as saints in acknowledgment of Halloween’s origins, but since we were heading from the party straight to the penance service, it seemed like a good idea to revive the tradition. So it was Saint Bernadette and Michael the Archangel whom Mom drove to the party, muttering the whole way about the waste of gas—her sedan was in the shop and Dad had driven his ancient Chevy down to Columbus, for a conference, so she’d borrowed Uncle Steve’s huge truck.
“Be outside at eleven,” she called down from the cab as we got out, glancing up at the dull glow emanating from the third-floor windows. Nat rolled his eyes as he retrieved his wings—opalescent black, his own design and construction—from beneath a tarp in the truck’s bed.
In the twins’ domain, couches and arcade games had been pushed to the perimeter of the enormous open space. Cobwebs and rubber bats hung from the ceiling, and on the walls white Christmas lights twinkled incongruously against unsettling messages smeared in dripping crimson ink. There were maybe two dozen of our fellow theater-department nerds already clustered in groups around the food and drinks. No keg this time, but plenty of beer, a few bottles of cheap sweet champagne, cans of pop, and a punchbowl of something purple that was sure to be spiked. I watched Nat’s eyes widen when he took in the basket of condoms casually set next to the chips.
I handed him a pop. He made a face. “I’m not covering for you if you get drunk,” I warned him. I cracked a beer open and drank most of it in a few long gulps.
“Same here,” he said.
I turned at the sound of my name, shouted from a corner where Gwinnie, Steph, and Delilah were nursing red cups of punch. Delilah, dressed like Holly Golightly with a joint wedged into her long cigarette holder, waved me over. I looked back to check on Nat, but he was already headed for the arcade games, wading through what looked like the entire cast of Rent.
“Are you a serf?” asked Gwinnie, the Modern Euro prodigy, taking in my kerchief, high-necked blouse, Medjugorje cross, and blue corduroy dress, to which I’d hastily added a few sewn-on patches.
“Saint Bernadette. French peasant girl.”
“Close enough,” she said. After three years of wear, her costume was starting to resemble taxidermy more than the intended owl.
“Why’d you miss rehearsal yesterday?” asked Delilah.
“Studying,” I lied, trying hard not to stare at Steph, the play’s star. Tonight she looked arrestingly lovely in a grey jumpsuit partially unzipped to show a white tank top underneath, her curly dark hair uncharacteristically down around her shoulders.
“Ripley, from Alien,” she said, smirking at my blush.
I shook my can. The last of the beer sloshed against the bottom. “I’ll be back,” I said.
A few beers later a crowd of people had gathered around Nat, cheering him on as he won game after game. Gwinnie and Delilah had gone to find the bathroom before the line got too long, so I was alone with Steph. The party was getting wilder, more people swarming into the space and raising the temperature. I reached up to wipe the sweat from my neck and caught a splintered edge of the crucifix against my skin.
“You’re bleeding,” Steph shouted over the music.
“Damn.” My tissues were in my purse, buried in the pile of coats downstairs. Steph glanced over my shoulder and then pulled me close, running her tongue across the cut. The sting disappeared, along with my ability to speak.
Just then Amelia Wray, who was dressed as Nancy Kerrigan, miraculously keeping her balance on white roller skates, turned down the stereo and yelled, “Truth or dare! If you’re holding a can right now, you’re playing.”
“Everyone else, you’re witnesses,” added Robin Wray, Tonya Harding in a blonde wig and scrunchie. Nobody ever argued with the Wrays. They were smart, beautiful, wild as hell, and rich enough that they never paid for their mistakes.
I sat down in the circle, the beers I’d drunk keeping me from panicking. At least it wasn’t spin the bottle or seven minutes in heaven, but still, I hated truth or dare. Hated it more when Nat, sheepish, sat down next to me, a beer in his hand. I managed to conceal my shock when Jason, a senior with a luscious baritone and an even more gorgeous baby-blue ’62 Cadillac, squeezed between me and Steph on the other side.
To their credit, Amelia and Robin went first, Amelia admitting to a crush on the new playwriting teacher and Robin downing half a bottle of champagne. Ten minutes later Harmony and Paul had kissed, Jonas had admitted to shoplifting a guitar strap, and I was dreading whatever mortifying dare would be devised for my turn. Buzzed, I zoned out for a moment. When I snapped back into focus Robin was pointing her crowbar at Nat.
“Have you,” she said, “ever seen a dead body? Not like a relative’s at a funeral home. Just a regular one.”
“I’m not sure,” said Nat. I pinched his leg, hard, but he wouldn’t look at me.
She pounced. “What does that mean?”
“Do ghosts count?”
“Oh please,” said Amelia, snapping a loose sequin off her skating dress. The tips of Nat’s ears turned red, and he put his beer down so it wouldn’t spill. Beside me Jason perked up.
“I’m serious,” said Nat. “We used to live in this house set back into the woods. You couldn’t see it from the street—except in the winter. There was a creek around it, with a bridge. That’s where we saw the ghost.”
“It wasn’t a ghost,” I said, furious that he was telling our secret to people who’d only care about it as good story when conversation stalled on a roadtrip.
Jason put his hand on mine. I think he was trying to comfort me, but I flinched and he pulled it away, pretending nothing had happened. “Then what was it?” he asked coolly.
“Field trip!” crowed Amelia. “Who’s good to drive?”
Five minutes later I was in the Cadillac, which smelled like Jason’s cologne and wet dog, but even packed in the backseat with Steph, Nat, and Gwinnie, it was comfortable, like sitting on a couch. Robin and Delilah sat up front with Jason. Amelia was behind us in her Jeep, and another couple of cars followed.
We passed the church, ablaze with light, and I imagined the monsignor setting out his robes in the sacristy, weary from a day of fasting. “We have to be back by eleven,” I said again.
“We know, we know,” said Robin. “Do you want to use my cell to call your mom?” Of course the Wrays were the first in school to get cellphones.
“Yeah, I bet she’d take this real well,” I said.
I told Jason to park on the street; the paved incline down to the bridge was steep and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my junior year in traction. The driveway entrance was flanked by big pines with bright orange “No Trespassing” signs nailed to their trunks.
“I don’t remember those,” said Nat. We hadn’t been back since we moved out of the house five years earlier, the summer after Mom finished her residency.
“Can’t see why anyone would bother trespassing,” I said. After the incline and the rickety bridge over the creek, a long gravel driveway shrouded with overhanging trees wound up to the house, a genteel but decrepit early-seventies ranch. There were plenty of more accessible spots for making out or lighting up. The surrounding wood was so thick that the air always seemed heavy, weighed down with the teeming sounds of crawling life. Even when I sat reading by myself on the lawn, I’d never felt alone.
The April of our last spring in the house was even colder and more miserable than March. Still, we didn’t mind too much; the fireplace worked. One Sunday after church, playing cards by the big bay window, we saw a fawn take its first spindly steps in the backyard, and our parents told us Mom was going to have a new baby, due on Halloween. Mom and Dad were planning to offer to buy the house and the five acres it sat on from the parish, appreciating the privacy and the opportunities for expansion. Gleefully they talked about ripping out the green-flecked shag carpeting, stripping the hideous bronze wallpaper that extended over the ceiling in the den, building a proper deck and garden beds. Mom was especially cheerful, humming in the mornings, telling our favorite stories at bedtime.
Then one afternoon when we got off the bus Grandma Vivian met us, all flustered, and we found blood on bathroom floor, only half cleaned up. Mom was at the hospital, but not for work.
Somehow the house grew even quieter when she came home. Dad worked longer hours, we whispered through our homework, and Grandma baked bread that Mom, sequestered in the master bedroom, wouldn’t eat. She slid the loaves into the oven without a sound.
For months, Nat had been begging me to go out with him at night to catch the silent swoop of the owl that nested in a big maple on the creek bank. A few nights after Mom came home from the hospital, Nat nudged me awake, his arms full with our raincoats and winter hats, his glasses glinting in the nightlight’s glow. Even now, all these years later, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to go with him. Dad was on call at the hospital, and we couldn’t hear anything from Mom’s room. Grandma was staying in the den, where the sounds of WVIZ’s latest pledge drive seeped through the door. We snuck out through the kitchen and made a wide circle around the house, slipping a little on the wet leaves plastered to the lawn as we sped up, racing to reach the entrance to our secret trail through the woods.
We fumbled in the dark to find the walking sticks we’d left propped against the gummy pines, and until our eyes adjusted, we used them to feel along the narrow path toward the rippling sound of the creek. Our raincoats squeaked and my knees were soaked after a few minutes brushing against wet branches. When we reached the creek bank and the still-budless maple where Nat had seen the owl pellets, he pointed first to the dark smudge of the nest in the branches and then to a flat boulder nearby. We sat, fingers tucked in our sleeves, cold noses starting to run. The clock on the microwave read ten when we left, so we had about an hour before Dad’s old Chevy would rumble across the bridge.
We held very still, not speaking. Nat wanted his owl, but I wanted to see more deer, maybe even the baby and mother from the front yard. I hoped our scent would scare off any possibly rabid raccoons. Listening to the rain caught and softened by the dense trees, the faint pulse of traffic on the other side of the creek above the steep bank, I thought about my science fair project, Grandma Vivian’s partial plate, whether it was my turn to pick the movie we rented that weekend. Anything to avoid worrying about our mother.
As the rain began to fall harder, we huddled closer together, sinking our necks into our hoods as far as we could while keeping our eyes on the owl’s nest, our glasses fogging with our breath. My legs prickled and my back ached. I was about to suggest we head home when we heard something behind us, a noise coming from beyond the bridge, from the water itself. Not crying or wailing; more like keening, a bird tearing through the sky without its mate, a whale harpooned, a snared rabbit. A ripping sound dragged from the gut, but leashed into terrible softness, weaving in and out of the creek’s trickle.
Slowly, unwillingly, Nat and I turned, our glasses clacking together. In equal measure I wanted to run home and I wanted to fling myself flat against the loam, but Nat was already moving. Taking the Lord’s name in vain, I slipped off the rock and did my best to move silently forward in a crouch, my fingers slipping on Nat’s slick jacket whenever I got close to him. At least the rising wind and rain dampened the noise we made. Frightened as I was, it was a relief to reach the bridge’s shelter. We crouched behind one of the big brick pillars holding it up, squinting through the sheets of rain and our misted glasses.
Call it an apparition. It took the form of a woman, her back to us, dressed in light blue-gray that stood out against the dark trees and sky. A cowl or a hood covered her hair. She stood in the water, and though I couldn’t see them I could swear her feet were bare. They must have been, to grip the rocks. She did not speak or turn to look at us, just moaned into her hands. If I’d been older I would have run for help, I like to think, but at ten I was too horrified and fascinated to do anything but watch as the apparition sank to her knees in the water, as if in prayer.
Thunder crashed, close. Too close. I’d once seen a stray dog zapped on the bridge during a lightning storm.
“Nat,” I hissed, “we have to go now.”
“But what about . . . that?” He shivered, his gaze fixed on the kneeling woman. He reached out to touch the water, pulling back immediately at its iciness.
I didn’t answer, just tugged at his arm, then stilled as a car engine grumbled down the slope of the drive, its buttery lights illuminating the rain. The bridge rattled beneath the car’s weight. Dad.
We scrambled to our feet and ran, heedless of the noise now. When I looked back, the apparition was gone.
Once we got inside, cringing at the click of the front door behind us, we realized the power was out. Grandma grumbled in the den and Dad was sputtering as he knocked into the furniture, looking for a flashlight. Nothing from the master bedroom.
We hid our boots and raincoats in the bathtub before we snuck into Nat’s room. He tunneled under the covers while I leaned against the wall at the end of the bed.
“It was the ghost,” he whispered into the dark.
“Joey Symborski said that a lady killed herself by jumping off the bridge a hundred years ago.”
“The bridge wasn’t here a hundred years ago, and if you jumped you’d just break your leg.”
Privately, I thought that we’d witnessed something holy. Not the triumphant Queen of Heaven, but Mary of the sorrowful mysteries, Mary whose heart was pierced, Mary who cradled her dead son at the foot of the Cross.But why hadn’t she spoken to us?
“Should we tell Dad or Grandma?” asked Nat.
“I don’t think we should tell anyone. What if they think we’re crazy?”
“Okay.” His voice was very soft. We’d both be exhausted for school the next day.
“Nat,” I said, poking his foot. “Promise me you won’t go into the woods at night. And not alone in the daytime.”
I felt him shiver through the blankets. “Of course not.”
And he didn’t, as far as I know. But I did, every night for the next week, hoping and fearing to see her again, convinced she could tell me what to do, how to pray, to fix our mother. The last time I went down to the creek, I tripped, soaking my clothes and twisting my wrist. By the time I got back to the house I was shivering hard. I slipped into the kitchen, only to find two mugs of tea spinning in the microwave, and my mother at the table with a plate of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
“That was the last time,” she said. “Go put on some dry clothes, and then we’ll talk.”
The bridge must have clanked under our weight, but I couldn’t hear it over the group’s nervous laughter, out of place in the gloomy solemnity of the woods. At the end of the long gravel drive, colorless as sloughed-off snakeskin in the dark, I made out the shadow of the house. My shoe caught in the bridge’s iron grating, and Steph reached out to steady me, taking my hand. I let it go too quickly and stumbled anyway.
“Where did you see it?” Amelia asked Nat.
Nat pointed to the left. “That way, but in the creek.”
The water looked deeper than I remembered. Downstream of where we’d seen the apparition as children, a fortress of sticks and branches clogged the creek. Sure enough, the trees around us had been scraped by beaver teeth.
“Shit,” said Nat up ahead. The word cracked through the air, subduing us.
“Dropped my contact.” He was squinting, one eye squeezed shut.
“Robin, can I borrow your phone?” I asked.
“You’ll never find it,” drawled Jason.
I ignored him and trained the weak beam of light where Nat stood on the border between the chalky gravel and the fallen leaves, looking for a wet gleam.
“Go ahead,” I called. “We’ll catch up.” Jason sidled up to Delilah, Gwinnie and Steph whispering in their wake.
Soon my neck and back ached. I cursed under my breath. Nat, still rooted in place, reached over, taking the phone and sweeping it in concentric half-circles around his body. I could hear the others in the woods, hiding behind trees to jump out at each other, splashing at the creek with sticks to judge its depth. “You shouldn’t have done this,” I said to Nat.
“I had an itch in my eye.”
“You know what I mean.”
He shrugged. “I just told the truth.”
I snorted, exasperated. The bluish light from the phone winked out. “You have to close it and open it again to get the light back. Who would have known if you’d just said no?”
“You count. Anyway, how come you always choose dare?” he asked.
My breath hitched low in my throat.
“There!” he crowed, before I could splutter anything. He pointed to a glint in the leaves.
I pinched the soft film between my fingers. “Too dirty to put back in,” I said.
“I’ll just swish it in the creek.”
“God, Nat, do you know how much bacteria could be in there?” He held out his hand and I dropped the contact into it. “Promise me you’ll take it out as soon as we get home.”
I walked down to the creek’s edge with him. Far ahead of us the others were investigating the dam, Steph scolding them not to bother the animals. I let my fingers trail into the cold water until they hit a slimy stone. The air had that peculiar starched stillness that signals snow. “We need to get back. Mom will be pissed if we’re—get down!”
A faint crackle became a groan of popping gravel as a car took the drive’s last curve fast, building up speed to cross the bridge and ascend the steep incline to the street. And it wasn’t just any car: it was the monsignor’s silver behemoth, its V-8 growling with the weight of the trailer hitched to its bumper. The headlights swooped for the bridge, the light glancing off Nat’s wings.
“Is that—?” he whispered, squinting, one eye still shut. He’d lost the contact again.
“Yeah.” I’d seen the driver too: the monsignor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Novak, strained and pale, almost ghostly. Beside her in the passenger seat was a little girl, about four or five, her head straining to peep out the window.
I could swear the bridge sagged a few inches under the weight of the car and its burden. Beside me Nat let out his breath when Mrs. Novak nudged the Roadmaster onto the incline, then sucked it back in when the car’s forward momentum was arrested. It sank backwards, coming to rest inches from the trailer, which was stuck on the bridge, its wheels caressing the edges.
“It’s not going to fall, is it?” Steph whispered, suddenly beside me. Everyone else had gone silent, afraid of being caught trespassing.
“I don’t think so. But it’s blocking the bridge, and unless you want to cross the creek, it’s the only way back to the road.”
“Christ,” said Jason, stepping out from the pines with Delilah. Her pearls were missing and her hair was coming undone.
“Hello? Is someone there?” Mrs. Novak called.
I turned to Steph. “Get everyone over here.” I called toward the car, “Mrs. Novak, it’s me, Margaret Weaver. I used to go to St. Blaise? My brother Nat is here too. We were just showing our friends where we used to live.” I climbed up to the bridge, leaning around the trailer so she could see me.
“Oh. Hello.” She didn’t recognize me. “I was just going to take my—take Abigail and walk to the gas station to call a tow truck.”
“Do you want us to try pushing first? There’s a bunch of us here.” Behind me Steph had assembled everyone into an orderly phalanx. I didn’t love the idea of all that extra weight on the bridge, but it had to be close to eleven and the gas station was more than a mile away. Snow fell in big wet clumps.
“All right. Count of three?”
When she gunned the engine, we pushed. As the silver car surged forward, the trailer budged, but soon fell back again. Again and again we tried, switching places as our shoulders bruised. Gloriously commanding in her jumpsuit, Steph took over the count when I gasped for breath. After the fifth or sixth attempt, Mrs. Novak turned off the engine and stepped out of the car, talking to someone we couldn’t see.
“Margaret,” my mother said in a low voice that carried over the sound of the creek, “get everyone off the bridge right now.” A cable clanked and hazard lights flashed. Uncle Steve’s truck.
It was over in minutes. Mrs. Novak made a right out of the driveway, heading west, away from St. Blaise.
When we staggered up the driveway we found Mom waiting in the truck, the passenger doors open. Nat got in the backseat while I handed Robin her phone, told Gwinnie and Delilah I’d call them later, and hugged Steph one beat too long. By the time we drove past the monsignor’s empty Victorian, Nat began to snore, beery fumes reaching us in the front seat. At the light in front of St. Blaise we stopped. We’d missed the start of the service, and yet I didn’t feel relieved. Snow-veiled cars filled the lot, and in an alcove cut for the Blessed Mother’s statue, a man in a green parka rocked a baby.
Five years ago, on the day before my mother forbade me to visit the creek at night, I’d gone to confession with Grandma Vivian. While she whispered with her best friend in the chilly pews, I slipped into an available confessional, the heavy velvet drapes swishing closed behind me. The wood panel pulled away from the grate, revealing the monsignor, absently thumbing a rosary. He seemed distracted, but not in the politely disinterested manner priests usually affected when hearing confession.
After the customary preliminaries, he asked me what I had come to confess. Hesitantly, I related what Nat and I had seen in the creek.
“Where was this, you say?” he asked, his eyes glittering in the dim chamber.
“At our house. The one we rent from the church, with the woods and the creek?”
I’d never seen a priest drop anything before. As he reached for his rosary I barreled on. “Could it have been her, Father? The Blessed Mother? If I pray will she come back and speak to me?”
“My child, God and His saints do not always answer prayers in the way we think they will. Do your best to please the Blessed Mother and her Son with good deeds and prayer. Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
It took me a while to realize that I hadn’t made an act of contrition, nor had I been assigned any penance. I forgot about the odd experience, though, when we started house-hunting in earnest the following week. The parish had declined my parents’ offer for the property with the vague explanation that the monsignor had a use for it.
The cold afternoon in the confessional came back to me now, as I sat there afraid and aching to admit my own secrets. When the light turned green I braced myself for a blistering lecture. But my mother took my hand in hers, cool and soft as spring in Medjugorje, and we drove away from the penitents lining the pews, just waiting for a voice to speak the words, to be healed.
Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared in FIELD, Tin House Online, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, The South Carolina Review, Necessary Fiction, Booth, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in fiction and poetry. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to her writing: carolynoliver.net