On a foggy afternoon in San Francisco, Sylvia Vicino woke from a nap on the couch to the sound of muffled rapping at her door, and opened it to find an old man squinting at her with eyes as dark and bulging as beetles. He was so short she could see the top of his bald dome, stippled with age spots, ringed by unwashed hair, dandruff powdering his shoulders. Right away she knew it was Padre Pio, the newly canonized saint she’d been reading about in the newspaper before she’d drifted off to sleep. Somehow he had crossed from her unruly subconscious to her doorstep, a spectral appearance that felt like a blow to her head. She shut the door in his face.
To put as much distance between them as she could, Sylvia retreated toward the kitchen in the back of the house. But halfway down the hallway she heard a voice.
-- Sylvia, God bless you. You called.
The voice was commanding and clear, as if someone were standing directly behind her. An icy blast of air engulfed her. She turned to see Padre Pio in her foyer. He must have walked through her front door. He looked so real, three-dimensional and in color, not some flat gray-scale apparition floating on the wall; he might have been human except for the hazy corona surrounding him like a heat wave. He wore a black robe, oversized wooden rosary beads looped over a cloth belt, and his infamous gloves, red and fingerless, which supposedly hid his stigmata.
Sylvia felt silly answering him but she couldn’t stop herself.
-- I did?
Padre Pio pursed his lips and ran his fingertips through his gray beard.
-- The distress sign was unmistakable.
Then as if he hadn’t been dead for nearly fifty years, Padre Pio shambled past her down the hallway leading to the dining room and kitchen, past her dying houseplants, a half-eaten pizza, piles of books and magazines and unfolded laundry strewn across the dining table. She wasn’t usually such a messy housekeeper and wondered briefly if Padre Pio knew that. She called after him.
-- Padre Pio! There must be some kind of mix-up.
-- You’re not Sylvia Anne Therese Vicino?
Without waiting for a response, Padre Pio disappeared around the corner into the kitchen.
Sylvia’s feet felt crazy-glued the floor. Quite possibly she was sleepwalking or suffering a psychotic episode, and although she’d never experienced either, she imagined they were alike. Surely both included aural components, the voice, the wheezing, and the scratchy sound of his slippers as he shuffled across the hardwood floor. But the smell? The scent of orange blossoms mixed with earth wafted in his trail.
Already she was thinking about how she would spin this to her husband Daniel. She hadn’t been herself lately, and he’d suggested that she talk to a therapist or drive over to Spirit Rock to learn how to mediate. He hadn’t yet mentioned a psychiatrist. Maybe she’d keep Padre Pio’s visit to herself.
Sylvia made a clumsy sign of the cross and followed Padre Pio into the kitchen. She found him examining the refrigerator, peering at his reflection and running his hands across the sleek stainless steel door before putting his ear up against as if he were listening for a heartbeat. Then he stepped back, grabbed the handle and yanked open the door. He took out a can of Coke and popped the tab. The soda fizzed over the top onto his half-gloves.
-- Damn it.
-- Let me get you a paper towel.
-- Never mind that. I’m cold Why don’t you get me a blanket?
His voice was prickly, and his bushy eyebrows, so black they might have been dyed, narrowed together, giving him not a look of saintly concern, but of irritation.
Sylvia backed out of the kitchen and ran up the stairs to the linen closet. She knew why Padre Pio was here.
Two weeks ago, while she’d been walking down a city boulevard, distracted by a throbbing tooth, she’d heard the shriek of brakes and turned to see a truck roar up over the curb past her. It smashed into the brick wall of a hair salon with such force that the ground shuddered. Sylvia’s heart had slammed into her chest, jack-hammering so hard she thought she might pass out. The truck had just missed her.
Sinking to the curb near a storm drain clogged with leaves, Sylvia had sensed a blur of color as orange-vested PG&E workers ran past her, an orange the exact color of the hollowed-out pumpkins she’d carved with her mother back in Michigan. She and her mother had made ghosts from white sheets, using black marking pens to draw in eyes lined with brows fat as caterpillars and mouths jagged as shards of glass, and strung them up in the leafless oak tree out front. She could feel the squishy pumpkin guts in her hands, taste the salty thumb-sized seeds her mother baked in the oven. It was as if she’d slipped through a porthole of time, and when she became aware again of her surroundings, she felt as if hours had slipped away. She registered the sound of shouting, of boots crunching shattered glass, and of the muted punches of the driver furiously pounding the truck’s airbag.
Since then, Sylvia hadn’t been sleeping well. Twice she’d forgotten to pick up her boys from school, and her boss at the card shop where she worked part-time had taken her off the cash register because the drawer kept coming up short. She couldn’t shake a hyper- awareness of how precarious life could be, her own life in particular.
She’d tried to meditate as Daniel had suggested, but questions kept bobbing up in her mind: Was there an afterlife? Could we come back in an altered state, as another being or a spruce tree or a leopard? Or was death oblivion?
She desperately wanted to believe in God, in immortality, but the Catholic Church, with its tedious Masses and oppressive rules, had driven her away years ago, and she’d been flip-flopping between skepticism and belief ever since.
Prayer seemed like a long shot, but she gave it a try, whispering Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s before bedtime. She also prayed to St. Therese, a gentle-faced patron of the sick, always pictured with a bouquet of flowers in her arms, whom Sylvia had chosen for her Confirmation name.
Padre Pio wasn’t at all what she’d prayed for.
Back in his day, she’d read, high-ranking Church officials had described him as a psychopathic, womanizing fraud, the stigmata on his hands self-induced by carbolic acid, his orangey odor of sanctity just cheap perfume.
And yet, he’d become a saint. He’d purportedly performed miracles, prophesized astonishing occurrences and levitated above his followers. His corpse was exhumed and repaired by the experts who made wax dummies for Madame Tussauds, then placed in a crystal glass casket in a cathedral in San Giovanni Rotondo, a tiny village on the heel of Italy’s boot where he’d lived and preached. St. Pio had become a spectacular tourist attraction, supporting hotels, restaurants, and throngs of vendors, his dour visage gracing key rings, mugs, snow globes, potholders, anything small enough to stuff in a suitcase.
When Sylvia got back down to the kitchen, she found Padre Pio stretched out on the couch. Outside, the sun had broken through the late afternoon fog and filtered in through the shades, patterned in bold Indian hues of pumpkin, ochre and pomegranate. The colors cascaded over Padre Pio, and lying on his back, eyes closed, hands crossed atop his chest, he looked so peaceful, so saintly. He looked like he probably did lying in his crystal glass casket in San Giovanni Rotondo.
She reached out to touch him, she wanted to know if she would feel flesh and bones, but his eyelids snapped open and he bolted upright.
-- Do you have any soup?
-- What about the blanket?
Sylvia unfolded the blanket and leaned over him, thinking she might get to touch his robe as she wrapped the blanket around him. Touching his robe was purportedly all it took for divine intervention, and why else had he appeared if not to assuage her troubled mind?
But Padre Pio snatched the blanket from her hands.
-- I’ll just sit here and warm up while you make the soup.
Christ, she thought, already he was ordering her around, just as demanding and intrusive as the Catholic Church. She rummaged through the cans in the cupboard, looking for minestrone, then poured the soup into a pan and put the burner on simmer. She walked back to the couch and stood before him, hands on her hips as she examined him. He reminded her of her dead Uncle Bert, a bossy tax accountant who had never married and died of a heart attack at fifty.
-- Let’s get down to business.
-- Padre Pio, I’m not sure if you’re the guy I need to talk to.
Sylvia couldn’t bring herself to call him St. Pio, not after what she’d read about him.
It was as if Padre Pio knew she was thinking about the unflattering article. He picked up the empty Coke can from the coffee table and crumpled it in his hand.
-- Those fools eavesdropped by my confessional box and never proved a thing!
His voice echoed in her kitchen, sounding like every booming voice of God in the made-for-television movies Sylvia had grown up watching on Easter. His eyelids, rimmed in purple translucent flesh, fluttered weirdly.
-- I wasn’t referring to the controversy, but since you mentioned it …
-- That ignorant physician who examined my stigmata was a witch doctor. Jealous that our Lord bestowed on me the power to heal with the touch of my robe.
-- Are you wearing that robe now?
Padre Pio ignored her. He tugged at his gloves, each cut with five holes so that his fingers above his knuckles were bare but his stigmata hidden.
-- What about the stigmata? I don’t suppose you’d give me a peek?
-- Don’t be impudent. I’m tired. It was a long flight.
Sylvia wondered what he meant, then remembered one of the more incredible accounts she’d read. During World War II when Allied bombers were flying over Nazi-held territories in Italy, including San Giovanni Rotondo, several pilots reported the apparition of a monk, sometimes human-sized, sometimes gigantic, shimmering like a protective force-field. A malfunction of the plane would happen during these strange appearances, the plane’s bomb door wouldn’t open or the bomber would suddenly lose altitude, and the village would be spared. Later, some of the pilots identified the apparition as Padre Pio.
Sylvia tried to imagine the spectral monk on her couch beating back a squadron of bombers, but it seemed too outlandish. She sat down next to Padre Pio and scooted toward him. Up close his eyes looked even blacker.
-- Tell me why you’re here.
-- God works in mysterious ways. I heard your joyful call. Hallelujah.
Hallelujah. Yesterday the word had slipped like a wish from her lips at the sight of a field of buttercups as she was driving back from a doctor’s appointment. Since the accident Sylvia had become a bit paranoid, and fearing a new mole was skin cancer, she’d ran to the dermatologist. It turned out to be nothing. Seeing the buttercups, she’d wanted to pull over the car and lie down in all that yellow. She’d wanted to feel the soft grass tickling her legs and the wind stroking her face while she looked up at the clouds and tried to find faces and animals, shapes and perhaps even signs from above.
But she hadn’t stopped the car. She’d felt too self-conscious to lie down in the middle of a public park. And lying in that field of buttercups would have made her ponder the majesty of nature, which would have led her to think about how the world was made, how it would end, how it could all disappear in the flash and roar of a truck.
It would have made her think, too, about that long ago day in a park quilted with dandelions when she’d made a necklace of the weeds for her mother and slipped it over her mother’s head, covered in a red bandana. Her mother had worn the chain of yellow all day until it wilted and fell apart into hollow stems of milky sap, the flowers curling, decaying around her neck. She died of ovarian cancer that summer, when Sylvia was eleven and her mother the same age as Sylvia was now.
Padre Pio was staring intently at her, waiting her for response. He seemed concerned, and she forgave him for his earlier imperiousness.
-- Hallejuah was cry for help?
-- You’ve been struggling with grave misgivings about our Lord Jesus Christ, and still you praised him. And you’ve been praying. True? I’m here to help and to make a deal.
-- Let’s make a deal? Are you crazy? Saints don’t deal.
-- There’s no need for name-calling, my child. And I would urge you to think about whom you are calling crazy.
-- That’s not very saintly. And from what I’ve read, you are …
-- I can disappear in an instant if that’s what you want.
Sylvia questioned whether he was here at all, whether it was she who could make him disappear and not the other way around. It was as if he’d drifted like a hallucinogenic shimmer from the pages of the newspaper to her living room. Still, she wasn’t through with him, not yet.
-- No! Sorry. Tell me about this deal. What’s in it for you?
-- My sainthood.
-- But you’re already a saint. You’re like a rock star there in San Giovanni Rotondo. They can’t de-saint you, can they?
Even to this day he had his detractors, Padre Pio told her. The Vatican could “desanctify” him if it reviewed his documented miracles and found them wanting. The pedophilia scandals had hit to close to the Vatican and the Church needed some good publicity.
-- Imagine the symbolism of a decommissioned saint. I need a new miracle so they can’t touch me, someone to speak on my behalf, someone like you, a woman who rediscovered and renewed her faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior after St. Pio snatched her from the path of an out-of-control truck.
-- That’s a lie.
-- Think of it as an embellishment for a greater cause.
-- I guess it’s been awhile since you visited San Francisco. You don’t get publicity for something like that. You get meds.
Padre Pio tilted his head as if he’d heard a noise in the distance, then his eyes twitched and he slumped back on the couch. He looked miserable.
Sylvia reached over to comfort him, but her hand went right through him and this startled her so much that she flinched and drew back from him.
Padre Pio’s mood shifted instantly; he grinned mischievously and winked.
Sylvia bit her index finger, thinking she wouldn’t necessarily feel the bite if she were dreaming. She didn’t feel a thing, but saw indistinct stitch-like impressions of her two front teeth. Padre Pio was looking expectedly at her. She asked him if he was ready for his soup, but he said he’d lost his appetite. Sylvia got up from the couch to turn off the burner.
She couldn’t decide whether she wanted Padre Pio to stay or go, and yet she felt oddly hopeful.
-- Tell me what it’s like. The afterlife.
Padre Pio modulated his voice as if he were a hypnotist. The corona above his bald head flared then flickered softly. A magnetic force seemed to be pulling her toward him, but she willed herself to remain in place at the stove.
-- Close your eyes and imagine you are floating on your back in a lake, a patch that’s been heated by sun, every part of your body weightless, and you hear the sound of the water lapping against the shore, you smell the anise of your Nonna’s cookies. Boundless love infuses you.
Sylvia wondered briefly how he knew about her grandmother’s cookies. Leaning against the stove, she shut her eyes and did as she was told, picturing herself back in the lake in Tennessee where her grandfather owned a cabin. Perhaps it was only the heat from the stove, but a womb-like warmth enveloped her. She remembered her first pregnancy, how she and Daniel would tap their fingers across her belly when the baby kicked, communicating in a Morse code of wonder. We love you. We want you. We can’t wait to meet you.
Sylvia exhaled and felt her belly expand, her arms and legs tingle. Such a miraculous sense of release. Okay, she told herself, now envision a higher being, heaven, eternity.
Within seconds, her mind wandered and her heart began to race. She’d almost drowned in that lake in Tennessee as a toddler. She’d panicked when a school of minnows flicked around her legs and nibbled at her toes, and she’d waded away from the shoreline into the deeper water, where it was cold, murky, terrifying.
She opened her eyes. Padre Pio gestured, opening both hands as if to say, so tell me what happened?
-- Not working for me. Got something else?
-- Why are you cheeky about such a serious a subject, Sylvia?
-- Why do you ask questions you know the answers to?
-- The answers are many and varied.
-- I’m not sure I believe in your God anymore.
Padre Pio bowed his head, pressed his palms together in prayer, and told her that God’s power and glory were unfathomable to humankind, that she must stop her fruitless questioning and have faith. Sylvia shrugged. She walked back to the couch and sat down on the coffee table in front of him. She was getting tired of Padre Pio and tried remember what she’d seen on a reality show about ridding homes of ghosts, but nothing came back to her. She decided the best strategy was honesty.
-- You priests tell us there’s a God, an afterlife, but sometimes I feel like it’s all a crock, a fairy tale to get us into your churches.
She paused, and Padre Pio gave her what she interpreted as a patient nod of his head so she forged ahead.
-- What’s the Church done for me except give me the thou-shalt-not ten commandments and tell me what’s wrong in this world: abortion and homosexuality, birth control and in vitro fertilization. Pass the collection basket to pay for what? Priests molesting little boys? I want to believe. An afterlife would make my anxiety about death easier to deal with. Christ, I don’t know. What I’m missing, I think, is the gene for spirituality. Maybe I didn’t get it.
Padre Pio cocked one busy eyebrow like a boomerang before he glared at her, pushed the blanket from his lap and stood up unsteadily from the couch. Sylvia shrank back in surprise.
-- I find your comment about molestation irresponsible, not to mention your sinful use of the Lord’s name in vain. You can’t tar all of us, the entire Church, with that terrible charge. My good name was smeared.
Even though she didn’t want to, Sylvia apologized again. She could feel her anxiety as if it were a physical thing, a bug or a small creature crawling over her body. Sylvia had been too young to sit with her mother as she lay dying, but she remembered how peaceful, how eager even, her grandmother had been a few years ago during her last days of hospice, so sure she would slip the bonds of earth and glide into the loving arms of Jesus Christ.
She wanted that same comfort. She didn’t know why Padre Pio was here, or why she’d conjured him here, but at the very least, he might tell her how to live with doubt. Living with it, she knew, was part of faith. But her doubt had wrestled her faith to the ground.
-- Can’t you show me how to rediscover my faith?
Padre Pio drifted off the couch away from her. He touched the locked door that led to a small redwood deck. It opened. Outside, he positioned himself under a shaft of sunlight breaking through the fog, and the light, filled with particles of moisture, seemed almost tangible as haloed around him. Sylvia followed him outside. He looked taller, more imposing than he had seemed seconds ago, and he spoke to her in his Easter God voice, a voice he must have once used at the pulpit.
-- What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
-- Unseen is eternal? I’m seeing you and I’m still not getting a good feeling about eternity. Explain that.
-- How I prayed you might cooperate.
-- What kind of saint are you, wanting quid pro quo, still fighting the battles of your life on earth? Where is your peace? Here I prayed for the real thing, and I get you, the very embodiment of what’s wrong with the Catholic Church.
-- May God forgive you!
A crow began cawing loudly from one of the spruce trees in the backyard. Padre Pio looked up toward the tree, searching for the noisy creature. He seemed irritated. Yanking his rosary from the belt of his robe, he held up the crucifix toward Sylvia as if he were warding off evil.
-- Remember those who go away into eternal punishment. Only the righteous go to eternal life.
Sylvia backed away from him.
-- Don’t pull that eternal damnation stuff on me.
Padre Pio inhaled sharply, muttering something Sylvia couldn’t hear, but it sounded like swearing. He shoved the crucifix back in his belt, left the deck and began walking through the kitchen and back down the hallway to the front door, Sylvia right behind him.
-- Where are you going?
Padre Pio turned and stared at Sylvia in a calculating sort of way, tapping his index finger against his lip.
-- I have made a mistake. If only our Lord had created us in his entire likeness. I am not infallible. I will find someone else to witness my appearance, or better yet I will cure a believer of a terminal illness. I thought San Francisco, a truly heathen town, would make for a spectacular venue. But I was mistaken there, too. Try to get some sleep, Sylvia. Remember, doubt sees the obstacles, faith sees the way. Doubt sees the darkest night, faith sees the day.
Hostility, honed by weeks of sleeplessness, flared in Sylvia.
-- You’ve got to be kidding me. That is so trite! I saw that line the other day on the Internet. How in God’s name is that supposed to help me? I prayed for some peace of mind and I get an egotistical monk worried his about reputation. Is that everlasting peace?
With his brows knitted together in anger, Padre Pio rose off the floor in her foyer and loomed over her, his arms outstretched, not protectively as he supposedly did for the good citizens of San Giovanni Rotondo, but as if he were going to attack her.
Clenching her fists, Sylvia stood her ground. She didn’t know what would come next, but she would find her own answers. She would live with her doubts, without the safety net of belief. She would quit ruminating, quit fixating on death.
Padre Pio flapped his arms weakly, like an injured bird, then shot her a disdainful look as he dropped back to the floor.
His pallor went stunningly white and the purple rimming his black eyes darkened. He looked like a weary, lifeless old man, ordinary, not at all divine, and Sylvia considered how exhausting it must be to live for eternity. What would you do all day when everyone you loved was gone, when the world around you had morphed into something unrecognizable? The prospect of living forever was unimaginable.
Padre Pio spread out his arms and cupped his half-gloved hands, closed his eyes and tilted his head upward. He spoke in Italian. His tone was disappointed, peevish, and Sylvia cursed herself for ignoring her grandmother’s attempts to teach Sylvia her native tongue.
Making the sign of the cross, Padre Pio faded away.
Sylvia ran out the front door, half-imagining she might see his apparition ascending into the skies. The towering eucalyptus tree at the curb blocked her view, so she hurried down the steps, out to the middle of the cul de sac.
Craning her neck, Sylvia saw only clusters of spiky red flowers rocking in the tree branches, tufts of fog threatening blue skies, and a crow the size of a cat sitting on the telephone wire. The mail carrier pulled up in her truck, and the crow cawed noisily and lifted off in flight, its outstretched wings oily and iridescent. Sylvia watched it pump up and over the treetops, and as the black smudge dropped out of view she felt a sense of quickening. Had she just awakened from a lucid dream?
Drained yet strangely at ease, she stood very still, taking in the warmth of the blacktop curling up her legs and the scent of the jasmine vines draping her neighbor’s fence. She thought about luck and fate, about the randomness of the truck rushing past her so closely that a foot in one direction or the other had meant the difference between life and death. She thought about her mother in the park blowing dandelion snow, telling Sylvia to make a wish, the two of them laughing, and how Sylvia had watched their laughter float skyward, as concrete to her then as the bits of dried-up dandelion carried aloft in the wind. She thought about Daniel and her sons, and felt anticipation radiating from her chest to the tips of her fingers. She stretched out both hands, much as Padre Pio had in a blessing, and glanced at her watch on the inside of her wrist. She needed to pick up the boys from school. Once again she was late.
About the Writer
Mary Taugher’s fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, Edge, Potomac Review, and other literary journals. She received an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University. She lives with her family in San Francisco, where she is working on a collection of short stories.