By Elizabeth Withers
Once a month, after Friday Mass, a new congregation formed in a lazy tangle of sticky hands and clumsy shoes. We sat wherever we liked, a special treat. And I remember the big-armed nun would wrestle the great black television—box-shaped and covered with a layer of dust so thick we’d dare each other to lick it. She’d heave the 20-inch set over her flimsy metal cart, and SLAM! Drop the whole thing down, letting God and gravity take care of the rest. The room was hot no matter the weather. The entire class of dutifully dressed little bodies pushed and bobbed in the thick air. We all tugged at our sweat-rumpled collars and khakis, jostling each other, throwing bits of paper at the girls, wet-willying, softly name-calling. We’d wait in whispers for the film to start.
By the time I reached the third grade, I’d seen about a dozen videos covering the life and works of Sister Freida’s favorite, Sainted and Martyred (or S&M, as we would later we call them), at least seven times each. I knew the lines before they were spoken, fell into the rhythm of the jumpy animation. My eyes and mind toppled along with every skip and crackle and hum the VCR threw familiarly and reliably my way. I sat between my best friends, John-Anthony Yezishinski and Brian Finlay, and we practiced shooting pellets of spit and snot onto Sister Frieda’s desk, the video playing comfortably in the corners of our eyes.
Nearly everything I watched and did in that stuffy room is a haze of dimly felt impressions, the years settling thickly on top. The past hides itself—slips between the chaos of too many voices. It becomes background noise, and sometimes I’m left with the feeling that I’m living my life in rewrites. A single video sticks with me: The Miracle of Saint Bernadette, the Blessed Child of France.
It’s a straight-forward story, a 70’s-made staple of Catholic education. The Virgin Mary appears to little Bernadette, an unnervingly pious child, who does as the Blessed Mother tells her and is made a Saint. At some point in the middle of the movie, a wiry Sister Margaret would burst into the classroom, stringy arms and hair flailing, to remind our souls of their sin-ridden mortal shells and our humble duties to ever-saving Grace.
Bernadette’s visions are beyond the understanding of her fellow townspeople, and they punish her and laugh at her, jumping and jeering with harsh voices behind the glowing screen. In an ultimate testament to humility, God orders Bernadette to eat dirt in front of the crowd. Later, on the spot where she’d sat in ridicule, chewing the ground and staring at the miracle of love no one else could see, a spring bubbles to the surface and flows with holy and healing goodness.
By fifth grade, I had learned that feigned confidence could get me into and out of any trouble I or my friends’ deemed necessary to add to our ever-growing list of credentials. Our decisions were always unspoken of directly, always understood to be unanimous, and our actions were dictated in the form of unsubtle speeches made in the presence of girls.
“Mrs. O’Shannon can kiss my ASS.” One of us would declare—usually John or Brian—and we’d all agree. In a classroom of 28, we few shared a tense solidarity, built on fears of notorious Catholic chastisements and images of fuming mothers waiting on the other end of phone calls home. It was a powerful thing to learn at eleven. In our little group, we were bigger than the trouble we caused or terrors we shared. Life existed in bursts of relief between the storms we kicked up. That’s what it felt like, anyway.
Gerdhaila Narvaez is staring at me from behind a rain-streaked window. I know it’s her—26 years since the fifth grade. I remember the name—so strange to us then. Rooted in places un-Latin, un-Saxon, un-Gaelic. Something so exotic would have been intimidating, except that it was as comically unbecoming on her as her XXL blue plaid jumper. Her skin clumped out of her uniform along the sides, stretched the seams into countable stitches, her plump little body upholstered into stiff submission. It wasn’t until the dress-code changed and the girls wore button-downs and plaid skirts that her uniform completely failed her, unleashing layers of shiny pudge and the delirious howls of 28 fifth graders.
My best friend Johnny was never properly in trouble. The nephew of a bulldozer of a nun, he was immune from suspension and expulsion, and his connections put him below the radar of every teacher, lunch-lady, and janitor. Once, he brought a lighter to school, snuck into the girls’ bathroom through the window, and just before the teachers came in for their break, set every single roll of toilet paper ablaze before climbing back out. He might have been our ringleader, I really can’t say. The danger was never in his disapproval, or rather, not in his alone. We were a collective, always making sure we grew and thought and acted together, but Johnny was the boldest, and with our combined boldness, we claimed the playground, the classroom, the lunchroom—all the little bits of the world we were learning to make our own.
We sat in rows of two in every classroom, assigned alphabetically. Narvaez, O’Connell. She used to have to squeeze past me into her seat. It was never done with poise, and occasionally, one of the boys would drop things—pencils, worksheets, erasers—near her desk and ask her to hand them back, eyelashes a-flutter with crazed-looking exaggeration, just to watch her fat body stretch and strain. Put in close quarters and left to their own devices, I think school children are capable of the same mixture of cruelty, boredom, and fear that leads animals to kick one another to death in the stockyards. I regret not being brave, or righteous, or whatever adjective invokes heart-swelling pride. I could have stood up for her somehow, possibly pulled my friends into an alliance for her defense, but we were busy learning to defend ourselves and all the little things we’d come to possess amid the chaos stirring around us, and the teasing was mostly harmless.
The thing that bothered me most about The Miracle of Saint Bernadette was the ending. At seven or eight years old, I didn’t wonder at the glory which came from Bernadette’s shameful dirt-eating, or that the orders for her shaming came from God Himself. Tales of Martyrdom and holy sacrifices and self-humbling were as ordinary as multiplication tables and loose teeth, and usually slightly less interesting than the latter. What I hated to watch—it made me angry, embarrassed even, inexplicably—was the final scene, in which a blind boy comes to visit the spring to be healed by it and simply isn’t. The film shows us that the boy finds a different kind of healing. God’s gift to him is manifest in something unseen, something he had already laid claim to long ago, but the boy is still blind. He’d come an extremely far distance, probably subjected himself to at least a few doubtful glances, if not outright ridicule, and all for what turned out to be just a dip in a creek. It was an exercise in blind faith, usually too familiar to the Catholic child to even notice, but this one had the consequences of a real, modern world. In the present, legends have to be modified. Exceptions and clarifications and long explanations about interpretation have to be given.
Never mind the so-called ‘horrors’ of martyrdom. There will always be a need to sacrifice oneself for something. Life is always a fight to find one’s place among the disorderly mess of the world. The violence of it becomes casual, almost cliché. All those dead men and women fighting for a claim to God’s love, for a spot in His heaven. The real horror comes at the end of the movie. The horror that it all amounts to nothing, and not even something to be glorified for or remembered by. No communion in the chaos, just too many unheard voices.
She’s scrubbing the counter of a run-down burger joint with jerky movements that jiggle all the way up her forearms. So many years later, and she seems just as pitiful. I don’t know why I walk in. Her scrubbing stops when the door sets a bell off somewhere. I used to watch her arm move while we wrote in class, curious about the way the brown of it changed shades as it splayed and rolled across the desk. I’d stare at it sometimes—not quite meaning to—with a mixture of wonder and satisfaction while I thought about squishing it, just a little.
My suit feels rancid after a few minutes in the greasy air. She plods over. She wears the same dull pout she used to, eyes and lips stuck out with absurd dolefulness.
“Hello.” I say it a little louder than I want to. I go on in a gentler whisper. “We went to school together. I’m Mike, maybe you remember, Mike O’Connell.” Her palms hit the table and startle me as she eases her way into the booth facing me. She settles herself in without looking up, and the vinyl seat seems to wail in protest. The restaurant is empty, but it still surprises me that she sits down.
“Yeah. Sure, I know you.” She says it the way a practiced chef would measure out a cup of flour—simply, briskly, with minimum attention.
“So how’ve you been? It’s been a while.” I give her a smile, a small one, and I hope she remembers I was nicer to her than most of the other kids. She nods lightly and positions her lips into a vague shape of a response. She leans against the back of the booth seat, looking away from me and fidgeting slightly. A little bracelet dangles from her wrist, three charms of baby shoes, and I wonder what her life could possibly be like. I wonder if she thinks about middle school. I want to ask her.
“I remember you used to lend me pencils. I guess I never thanked you for that.” I try a sheepish grin. She doesn’t look at me.
“No,” she begins, and I open my mouth to say a wry ‘thanks,’ but she continues. “You remember wrong. That curly-haired teacher just told me to give you one of mine.”
“Ms. Locke,” I remember aloud. Her eyes narrow.
“And you dropped it.” Her voice is flat. She looks bored, as though she doesn’t have time to explain this to me, too busy sitting in the booth of a sad little fast-food place to remind me. But the thing is, I don’t remember. She’s quiet now.
“Okay, well,” I stumble. The seating still squeaks under her, and I feel damp with rain and hot grease. It’s hard to breathe in this stuffy room. I try to focus. “I’ll thank you anyway—”
“My shirt buttons popped.”
The seat creaks again.
“Now how could you forget a thing like that?”
I don’t know what to say, or why I stay sitting in that booth. I should be anywhere else, not recounting middle school’s trivial details with a girl I barely remember. I start to gather myself up to leave.
Then she laughs, short and joyless. “I used to tell my Grandma how you got top grades but still cheated off me. You were a little writer then.” She seems to say it to no one in particular, although there was never anyone else with us.
I want to lean across the dull table and all the other lifeless objects scattered between us and touch her. To be two children in the darkness again. Just sitting. A room full of children, static hum coursing through our little bodies. I wanted to tell her that.
“Do you remember when we all—” I begin, a few muddled but slightly funny anecdotes slipping down my tongue, but she stops me again.
“No.” She shakes her head at the ceiling fan. “No ‘we all.’ ” Her voice is shaking now. “I don’t remember when ‘we all.’ ” She stops short and sighs deeper into the squeaky seat. Jaw gritted. She plucks at the edges of her uniform polo detachedly.
She looks straight at me.
And I feel the way I would late at night, when I’d sweat and my head would swell up with Johnny, and Sister Margaret’s Hell, and the loose corduroy skin of her arms. And I’d think about Bernadette eating dirt while Mary watched, and the blind boy with nothing to show for his faith, and sometimes Gerdhaila’s skin on the day either her body or her uniform button-down couldn’t take it anymore and the whole thing popped, skin sliding around and pencils spilt on the floor. I’d get so hot and dizzy, and I’d pray—it was the only time I’d pray. I don’t remember what I’d say, or if I said anything at all, only that I felt dumb and confused and that God had better be real. I’d fall asleep with Him looming in my mind, overshadowing the chaos, sweeping it away.
She leaves then. Heaves herself up along the narrow booth bench, past the little tables and out into the rain. All I do is watch, let myself be caught in the rhythm of her walking, and the roll of rain across her stained uniform, and the up-splash of rain puddles her feet make over the pavement. The sky is wide open now, releasing a storm that cannot be contained, not in buckets or rivers, or stories or legends, or even in words. It falls as though it’s had enough; washing away all the cluttered remnants of people’s lives left on the street, speaking loudly enough to drown all other noise in itself. She hops over a puddle and I can’t see her anymore, only myself in a grease-smudged window, gazing out after a fat woman in the rain.
Elizabeth Withers is an 18-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Blind Faith” is her first published work. She would like to thank you for reading!