Virgin of the Desert
By Martha Pound Miller
SYNOPSIS: When young Sparrow Thibault takes a swim in an Arizona canal, she is struck by lightning and begins hearing a voice in her head: “You are pregnant and will soon give birth to the next messiah.”
Meanwhile, at the Vatican Father Patrick Kilian goes to Cardinal Bruno to relate a strange vision he has seen on a hilltop near Fiumicino. There, Saint Joan appeared to him, saying a messiah would be born to a virgin in a distant land and that it is to be his mission to protect the woman and her child.
Cardinal Bruno is aware that the Pope had a similar vision and intends to announce it to the world. The cardinal becomes convinced these apparitions are the work of Satan, that the false prediction will cause great harm to the Roman Catholic Church and disillusionment among its faithful. He puts into action a dramatic plan for an assassin, the deadly “Egyptian”, to find and eliminate the pregnant woman and her child.
Warned by Father Kilian of the danger, Sparrow embarks on a dangerous journey accompanied by the priest, to the mountains of Oregon where they hope to find safety for her and her infant. But the Egyptian knows of their plan and follows close behind . . . too close.
Friday, August 15, 2008—Fiumicino, Italy: The Feast of the Assumption of Mary
Father Patrick Kilian rode his rented Vespa up the dusty, twisting road to a place high above the city of Fiumicino. He carried a coiled rope over his shoulder, its bristles chafing his neck with each bump and turn of the scooter.
The August sun hung in the sky, burning the hills with such intensity that it hurt his eyes. He could see miles in every direction, catch the raw scent of the sea borne on the wind. He had hoped the view might clear his mind, but he remained as baffled and hopeless as ever.
He parked the Vespa, found a gnarled olive tree, snaked the rope up and over a branch, and pulled the rope taut. This was the best, the only way. The Church had been his rock, his comfort. Now its rituals seemed pointless, its catechism lies. He had married the Holy Roman Catholic Church but he realized now his bride was a whore.
He wiped damp palms on his tunic, made a loop of rope and began tying a slipknot, testing it as he worked. Death by hanging would be quick, easy, and not too painful. He’d leave a gruesome corpse, but it would be a long time before it was found. Time enough for vultures to pick clean his bones. A black crow watched him from a distance, scolding him repeatedly with its raucous caw caw caw. Would it be the first to taste his flesh?
He marveled at the steadiness of his hands. They felt numb, almost as if they didn’t belong to his body. He watched his fingers twist and knot with the practiced ease that came from years of sailing with his father, years of being berated for his dreamy foolishness. His father never approved of his decision to attend seminary, considered it an ill-conceived idea. What would he say when he learned his son had committed the mortal sin of suicide? The thought of his reaction made Kilian’s lips twitch in a grim smile. He’d never been able to please him. Why change now?
The black crow hopped closer, cocked its head and watched him with a beady eye. From far below, faint accordion music floated up the hillside. A jet from the DaVinci Airport soared high above him.
He slipped the noose around his neck. The music made him pause. There would be no music where he was about to go.
He stepped up on a boulder. He’d jump and it would be over. No use asking God for an answer, even a sign that he trod the wrong path. There had been none forthcoming for too long.
He pushed the thought from his mind. Remembering Aggie would only bring back the wrenching pain of yesterday when he received word that little Jules had died.
The light brightened, and when he looked up, he saw the sun dancing in the sky. He shielded his eyes against its brilliance. The orb blazed. Flames engulfed the heavens, and in the midst of the fire, a form emerged: a young woman. She wore a costume which he recognized as a suit of, polished, white armor and he knew immediately it was the blessed Saint Joan of Arc. Her hair, cut short and straight across her forehead, moved slightly as if blown by an unseen wind. As he stared in stunned wonder, he heard a voice.
“Patrick Kilian.” She spoke to him, yet there was no sound.
He wavered slightly, momentarily dizzy, and then righted himself. He passed a hand over his eyes, but the sight persisted.
“Patrick Kilian, child of our Father, do not despair.”
Had he lost his wits entirely? Was he dead already and this was a vision of the afterlife?
He reached for the noose, felt the rope’s bristles again. The crow cried. He heard the bird clearly. He looked down and saw his dusty sandals and just beyond; the Vespa motor scooter lay on its side where he’d left it.
The fire in the sky blazed, but did not consume the girl who stood resolutely in its midst. “You have not completed your mission on earth,” she said. “Be of good faith. There will be a child born to a virgin living in a distant land. This new child shall be called the Messiah.”
“No,” he whispered and tightened the noose, convinced the apparition was in his mind. “God has forsaken me. I kept my promise and became a priest, but yesterday, my son died.” He was past tears now, beyond anger at God. All he wanted now was to blot out his pain.
“How many times have you prayed for the Lord to guide you?” asked the Voice. “Listen to me and heed His words. Your time is not yet, for this virgin woman will need your help.”
A bolt of lightning shot down from the sun and struck the olive tree above him. The wood burst into flame. He could feel its heat, hear the crackle of the old, dry branches, smell the acrid scent of burning rope. With a cry, he tore the noose from his neck and stumbled to the Vespa. He threw himself on it and wobbled off down the twisting road, looking back only once to see the column of smoke rising from the still burning tree drifting into the clear, blue sky.
August 15, 2008, Phoenix, Arizona
“Hey!” yelled Sparrow. “Stop!”
Vee hit the brakes of her brand new Mini Cooper so hard the little car did a quick fishtail before it stopped. “What the hell?” she shrieked.
“We’re going swimming,” said Sparrow, pointing at the graveled access road running alongside the Arizona Canal.”
“No way,” said Vee. “Can’t you read?” She pointed to the sign barricading the road: Property of Salt River Project No Swimming Fishing Allowed. “When has that stopped us?”
Sparrow hopped out of the car, dragged aside the barricade and motioned Vee to come ahead.
After a momentary hesitation and a quick look in both directions to make sure no one in any of the palatial homes that lined Arizona Biltmore Drive was watching them, Vee drove slowly off the wide paved drive and onto the graveled access road. Sparrow dragged the barricade back into place and hopped in. A few minutes later they were laying in the sun on their towels, trying to get comfortable in spite of the small pebbles that poked at their backs.
They dozed in the heat. Vee’s Slacker portable radio, tuned to KZRX, blasted Metallica’s “The Day That Never Comes.” A soft breeze blew the hair around their faces and they both began to sweat in the building humidity. A distant thunderstorm was brewing, Sparrow knew, now that the summer monsoon season was upon them.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, contented breath, caught the sweet smell creosote bushes.
“Let’s go to my house and go swimming,” said Vee.
“She doesn’t mean anything by it.” Vee batted her eyes. “What ever happened to your real mom. Did she die?”
Sparrow hesitated. “Nah. She travels a lot, all over the world, and I just got tired of all that money and all those fancy hotels.” She jumped up. “I’m boiling. Let’s go cool off.”
Before Vee could answer, Sparrow ran to the edge of the dirt and gravel bank and looked down the sloping embankment to the water moving languidly below. Then she was slipping and sliding down and into the water with a soft splash! The cold water made her gasp. She laughed, ducked under and opened her eyes. Her feet stirred up dirt at the bottom of the canal, muddying the water.
There was a splash beside her and then she could see Vee’s pale legs kicking the water. They both broke the surface at the same time, panting, giggling like little kids.
Vee took in gulps of air. “I can stay under really long. Watch this.” She clamped her mouth shut, puffed out her cheeks, and went under. Sparrow could see the red tee shirt beneath her, then Vee grabbed her leg and pinched playfully, darted away, swam back and forth a few times, then shot out of the water with a gasp. She squeezed her nose and wiped at her eyes.
Sparrow took a deep breath and went under the water, opened her eyes and saw a fish swim by. It stared at her with bulging eyes like an alien from another world. She felt light and a little giddy. Something caught in her hair and tugged. She kicked and swam away. Looking back, she saw Vee’s long legs churning the water.
Letting the water carry her, she looked down at the weeds growing in the mud. They waved gracefully as if blown by an invisible wind. She wished Vee were really a friend, the kind she could have sleepovers with where they’d talk about boys and college, and what they wanted to do with their lives. They got together sometimes because they were neighbors, because Vee wanted help with homework, usually Latin. But at school . . . that was a different story.
She turned over and looked up through the water, hearing the first, distant rumble of thunder. Lightning flickered.
When she felt her chest would burst, she shot out of the water, taking in a huge breath of air. The sky had turned a murky gray. The canal stretched out beyond her in both directions but no Vee in sight. She felt a beat of alarm. What if she’d gotten a cramp or something? What if she’d drowned? She wasn’t much of a swimmer . . . She swam back against the flow, looking up the bank for Vee’s little Mini-Cooper, not sure exactly where they had entered the water. She ducked under again, twisted and turned, searching the cold shadows for pale legs and a red tee shirt. She kicked harder, dived lower, and swam as close to the bottom as she could, hearing the ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump of her heart in the eerie quiet. She surfaced, took a huge breath of air, went back under. She made quick stroking motions, trying to clear the water, but that only stirred up the mud on the bottom and made it harder to see. In the gloom, she saw a snake glide by, make a quick dart and disappear. All Sparrow could think was what she would have to tell Vee’s mom. I’m sorry, it’s all my fault. If only I hadn’t insisted on going in the canal . . . She burst out of the water, thrashed in a circle, and went under again, getting closer to the bottom.
She stayed down, searched frantically, but now she needed air. She pushed up and out of the water, gasped, threw back her head and yelled, “Help!”
A faint shout answered.
There was Vee on the road above, waving her arms like a mad woman.
Sparrow swam for the side, dragged herself out of the water and crawled up to the bank to the road. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked like a gunshot. Her ears rang. When she reached the road, Vee was already in her red Mini, her face pale, wet hair stuck to her face like strange yellow leaves.
“Where were you?” Sparrow yelled. “I thought you’d drowned or something.”
“The storm moved in fast so I got out,” Vee yelled back. “I tried to tell you but you swam away from me.”
Sparrow stomped toward the car, barely aware of the sharp pebbles under her feet.
The sky was a startling shade of gray, almost purple, and the air had turned still and close, making her breathless, like being shut up in the bathroom with a tub full of steaming water. Warm rain began to pelt her.
A brilliant golden light flashed, so bright it blinded her, and she felt her hair lift off her shoulders. A sudden, thunderous crash blotted out all sound, and a burst of joy enveloped her.
This must be what it’s like to be born. Then, it was as if a giant hand picked her up and she felt herself floating in blackness. The void cradled her, then the sensation of moving came next, smooth and swift, rushing her along in the darkness like a runaway train. She felt a great longing for more.
“Wake up, Cherie.”
The sense of movement faded, leaving her tingling with euphoria. She felt light as a wisp of cloud, almost in a state of ecstasy. Something wonderful had happened, but she couldn’t quite remember where she was, even who she was.
“You time has come at last petit Piaf,” said the strange Voice. “Today you are pregnant with an infant beget by God and carried in His holy fire—and your child shall become the next Messiah.”
Father Kilian, still reeling from the vision he had just experienced, guided the Vespa along Via di Pita Angelica and parked it. He crossed Saint Peter’s keyhole- shaped square, dodging the crowds massed there, and climbed the steps to the Basilica. He entered the huge narthex that served as entry to Saint Peter’s.
He heard the archpriest chanting the Mass in Latin, smelled the incense, and sensed the hushed reverence of the people who filled the church that morning. He dipped a hand into one of the sculptured basins of holy water, genuflected, and slipped into the cavernous cathedral. He stood at the back of the crowd and let the beauty and sanctity of the space wash over him. The heaviness that had deadened him for the past few days lifted. He was clean, renewed. God had answered his prayers at last.
He turned over his shaking hands and examined his wrists. No stigmata.
Who did he think he was, Padre Pio? He’d seen a vision of Saint Joan, yes. Received a prophecy as well, and a mission. More than adequate to restore his crushed faith, to fill his soul with rejoicing.
The archpriest spoke a benediction, a hushed, hidden choir sang to the breathy strains of the pipe organ, and the congregation shuffled toward the altar. Most had their hands clasped in front of them, ready to take communion. Kilian started to join them, but held back. He must wait for the sacrament until he’d been in the confessional. His anger, his railings at the church, his disillusionment–all vanished. The saint had visited him. She had touched his soul and given him renewed hope and a cause. Yes, confession first, then he must make an appointment with Cardinal Bruno, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to relate his vision.
With eyes closed, he prayed for forgiveness for blasphemous thoughts, gave thanks for renewed faith by the gift of his salvation on the mountaintop. His body seemed to expand with joy as he gazed upward at the splendor of the structure. He loved its ribbed arches and painted ceilings, the statuary in the apses, the glorious baldachin over the tomb of Saint Peter, the brilliant, yellow alabaster window symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The dove glowed in the center of radiating rays, casting golden light on Il Divino’s Pieta.
Christ endured his suffering for all men. Yet, Christ never doubted that God loved his children. How foolish to think he could bargain with that same God. He received a vision from the Almighty. What might it mean to the world, this Second Coming of the Messiah?
It was staggering. Or had he lost his senses?
The sculpture of Mary holding her dying son made him think of Aggie and Jules, and the memory hit him like a blow. He pushed it from his mind. Jules, his precious little son dead–
He stood at the back of the crowd until everyone had returned to their places. Saint Peter himself was buried here, under their feet. Millions of people had worshipped in this space, received the blessings of the faith. But as he stood immersed in the cathedral’s beauty and magnificence, an unwanted thought intruded.
Why are you so sure of what you saw? You were ready to commit the mortal sin of suicide. Perhaps your ego deceived you. Who are you to be blessed with such a vision? He tried to ignore it, to focus on his memory of Saint Joan’s visitation. He knew he’d seen her, heard her. She had stopped him from killing himself. Her words drove him back to Rome and into the church, humbled, frightened, but full of hope again.
It was his old habit of questioning everything. Time now to rid himself of that, to take new habits. He grasped the crucifix around his neck and fastened his gaze on the figure of the Christ.
Saint Joan has revealed herself to me. God has not forsaken me. Didn’t he forsake you when he let Jules die?The question grew and a chink opened again in Kilian’s renewed armor of faith.
He sunk to his knees, no longer aware of his surroundings. “Pater noster,” he whispered, the familiar old prayer soothing him. Our Father who art in Heaven . . .
But the chink widened.
“Qui in caelis es, sanctifecetur nomen tuum.”
Pieces of his faith broke and fell away.
“—veniat regveniat regnun tuum—“
Kilian faltered. Another brick in his faith crumbled. He made himself continue.
“—fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra.”
Self-assurance deserted him until it was all he could do to keep from crying out.
Had the vision had been a delusion? Had he been tricked by God yet again?
“So tell me,” said Doctor Abbott, “about this voice you hear.”
Sparrow sat in the wood-paneled office of Doctor Giles Abbott, head of psychiatric medicine at St. Joseph’s hospital. She’d been referred to him by the ER doctor who, according to the nurses, had kept her alive when any other physician might have given up. “I don’t hear voices. If I did, I’d be crazy, wouldn’t I?”
She didn’t much care for this bearded shrink, but at least he’d stopped staring at her nose stud and the tatts on her arm.
“The voice identified itself as la Pucelle, the maid of Orleans?” Abbott said. “Joan of Arc.” He stroked his beard as if he were fond of it, pulling the variegated black and gray strands through his fingers. He had sad eyes that looked as if he were about to weep, and a long, hooked nose.
“I only heard it a couple times,” she said. “I really don’t think it’s important.”
“Why Joan of Arc? Why not an angel? Or God?”
“You’re the doctor. You tell me.”
He steepled his fingers. “We can’t chase away the vestiges of your emotional trauma unless you talk about it.”
“I don’t have any vestiges.”
She’d told Candace she wanted to quit seeing Dr. Abbott, but Candace insisted. “We can’t just ignore what the doctor said, Hon. You almost died from that lightning strike and as long as my insurance is paying, I’m making sure you’re A-okay.”
Sparrow stared at the framed certificates on the wall above her. There were six of them, varying sizes, all impressive, tipping her off to the doc’s expensive education at New York University and Stanford, and his membership as Fellow on this Board, and Member of that Society. He had credentials, all right, but she was scared to tell him the truth.
After a long silence during which she heard an ambulance wail by outside, he said, “Tell me a little about your parents.” “My dad died. My mom starting living with a loser. I don’t know where they are now.
He nodded, frowning. He had stopped petting his beard. Maybe he didn’t know what to say next. “Is that all?” he asked.
“Describing the pits doesn’t take long.”
“What happened to them?”
“They went off and left me at the mall.”
He stared at her. “Left you?”
“I was a kid. My mother and her scumbag boyfriend just took off and left me there. Never came back. I was scared shitless, I can tell you that. But why are we talking about this, anyway? What’s this got to do with anything?”
He gave her a small but irritating smile. “You seem to have a few other issues besides hearing the voice of Joan of Arc.” He looked down at his notes. “Did you study about Joan of Arc in school?”
“You think I’m making it up, don’t you?”
“Look. What I’m really worried about now is why I haven’t had my period.”
“For your information, cessation of your menses is probably a result of the lightning strike, which almost killed you. If you don’t have a period soon, consult your family physician.” He shifted in his chair. “Let’s talk about the day you were separated from your mother.”
Sparrow gazed out the windows and watched heat waves shimmer above the ribbon of sidewalk below. The walk snaked through a grassy lawn from Barrow’s Neurological Center where they sat to the main hospital building. It was at least 110 out there today.
She’d been inside that day too, in an air-conditioned mall. She was ten, small for her age. Each time they went out, Momma and Drub took her to a different place. But the routine was always the same. They’d buy her a double-decker ice cream cone and send her off to stand in front of a store. She’d gaze in the window, drop her ice cream cone, and start crying. She was pretty good at it and if she did it right, with enough feeling, someone, usually a woman, would kneel down beside her. They’d say, “Don’t cry, little girl. I’ll get you another ice cream.”
While the lady comforted her, Drub would kneel down like he meant to help too, and with a subtle bump and lift, slip a wallet from the lady’s handbag. He taught Sparrow how to bump and lift but said she was too young to go to work for him.
Doctor Abbott cleared his throat, waiting. “What about that voice?”
“It’s gone. Really.”
“Did you believe it’s real?”
She turned her gaze to him. “Of course not. We all know that people who hear voices are wing nuts.”
Kilian left the cathedral before Mass ended. Back in his small room, he dropped onto a hard wooden chair and stared at the terrazzo floor. A square of sunlight from a window high on the white stucco wall shimmered on the flecked design. The room was stifling. His head throbbed.
A steady beeping noise intruded on his whirling thoughts.
He was about to delete it unread. She’d sworn she wouldn’t contact him, so this must be important.
Pitiful how he hung onto hope. Hope that Jules’s death had been nothing more than a terrible nightmare.
PKG CMING 4 U – IMPRTNT
How like her to contact him this way when she knew he’d give anything to hear her voice again. Memories flooded in—her fragrance, the lilt in her voice, her laugh.
“Damn you,” he whispered.
At the same time, he ached with guilt over his betrayal of her.
Patrick Kilian and Aggie Brown had been friends in high school and later in college when they both went to Notre Dame. As a freshman, he studied theology, readying himself for the priesthood; she, art history. Life was good and he and Aggie were inseparable, studying, eating together, but as he tried to tell himself, they were just friends.
“Know what I like about you, Pat?” she said one day as the strolled the Commons on their way to class. “You have, uhm, I don’t know what to call it, this aura. Almost like a halo floating over your head.”
He’d heard something like that before from his parish priest and his mother, but knew he had no halo. “It’s because I’m so in love with God that the love must flow out and around me.” “Know what I like about you?” he countered.
She didn’t answer, but looked up at him expectantly. “You’re the sweetest, most fine little gal I know,” he said.
One day after a particularly difficult and grueling test, which Kilian was thrilled to later learn he’d passed, they celebrated with a bottle of wine in Aggie’s dorm room while her roommate was away for the weekend. As the effects of wine took hold, so did their realization that their attraction to one another was more than friendship. As they sipped wine and talked, a spring storm raged outside the dorm. Lightning flashed and thunder crackled, and then the power blinked off. In the darkness, they instinctively reached for one another, and Kilian knew then that a similar storm raged in both their hearts. In spite of knowing it was wrong, they embraced, kissed, and gave in to their passion. Aggie’s soft sweetness captivated him, and for the first time in his life, he had a brief concern about his choice to become a priest. He pulled away from her then, which all his willpower, for he could have melted in her arms again and again. He had never before allowed himself to feel that way for a woman, subjugating his feelings with renewed prayer.
In the fall they returned to college. Aggie asked Kilian to meet her in the Grotto. He felt a throb of regret when he saw her, her longish skirt billowing in the wind, her strawberry-colored hair loose and moving as she walked toward him. If he were ever to marry, Aggie would be his wife, but he had long ago committed his life to God.
“I’ve been to see a doctor, Pat,” she said after they sat down. “I’m pregnant.”
He sucked in his breath and tried to think of something to say.
Aggie held up a hand. “I will not allow you to quit school and give up your dream of becoming a priest, so don’t even think about it. You have that special something I told you about a long time ago and I know God is going to use you in a special way.”
He was stunned, not only by her pregnancy––what had they been thinking––didn’t he realize something like this might happen––but also by the direct way she told him, and refusing to allow him to give up his dream.
“No,” he said, “we’ll get married. Now.”
“I’ve made other arrangements and it’s too late to change them.”
Shortly afterwards, she dropped out of school. He heard she’d gone home to Chicago, and eight months later sent him a note saying she’d given birth to a boy she named Jules. “Don’t try to find me,” she said in the note. “It’s best this way.”
After his graduation and unable to stand it any longer, Kilian tracked them down in a small studio apartment in the Chinatown area of Chicago and met Jules. He was infatuated with their three-year old boy and his uncanny resemblance to his mother. Kilian ached with love for him, and was tormented by his inability to live the normal life he had always eschewed.
When Kilian was finally tonsured and became a priest, he accepted an assignment in the Chicago area so he could be close to Aggie and Jules.
Then, when Jules was four, he was diagnosed with leukemia and though the prognosis wasn’t good, Kilian was sure his God would not let their son die.
“I am serving the Lord as I promised,” he told Aggie. “I know God will spare our son.”
Then, on the basis of his service and his excellent grades at Notre Dame (and, Aggie told him, his special aura of holiness) he received an offer to spend a year in the Vatican archives. Kilian prayed over the decision to leave Aggie and Jules, and told Aggie that his answer had come. He must go to the Vatican. It was God’s will. Jules would be spared.
Six months later, Jules died and Kilian’s faith died with him. Now, he grasped at anything he could to renew it.