by Kelly Lynn Thomas
"Listen to my story, child," Father Fernando said. He sat in the pew behind Felisa, old and bent like a knotted tree on a windy plain. She leaned against the back, her feet on the seat, her brown eyes wide. Baby fat clung to her ten-year-old features, making her face round and white like the moon.
"This is a magical cathedral. During the night when the stars and moon hide in the thickness of the dark, you can hear the statues whisper to each other, whisper tales of old and tales of sadness. They speak of the ones who carved their faces from stone and the people who pray to them and the evil things men do when no one watches. But Dios always watches."
The priest pointed to the sweeping arches of the cathedral. He cocked his head up with the gesture.
Felisa’s eyes widened further and her mouth hung open in wonder. "Do they move?"
Father Fernando leaned in closer. "Only when they are alone," he whispered. "And no one sees or hears them."
A gasp escaped the girl’s mouth. "Do they play soccer?"
The priest laughed, but stopped himself when he saw the serious look on the girl’s face. He put his hand to his chin and paused a moment before giving his answer. "They would need a ball made of stone to play with. There is not one here. So no, they cannot play soccer."
"That’s sad," she said. "When no one watches me I draw pictures. When will Mamá be done?"
"Your mother always takes half an hour to confess. She’ll finish soon." Father Fernando shifted his weight in the pew and wondered why the Church always installed such uncomfortable benches in the house of the Lord. Felisa and her mother, Lucia, were somewhat of a fixture around the cathedral. The woman felt guilty about almost everything she did that didn’t directly improve her little girl’s life, and came to confession at least twice a week, leaving her daughter in the care of one of the priests, most often Father Fernando, while she took her time lamenting her sins.
"Felisa, why do you draw pictures when no one watches you?" the old man asked. His brow creased with the effort of fathoming the depths of a child’s thoughts.
The ten-year-old stood up on the pew, causing Father Fernando to rush to his feet as well. "I like to draw dragons. Sometimes they play soccer. But Mom doesn’t like them." She walked along the pew, imitating the stance of a gymnast on a balance beam.
Fernando walked beside, keeping a nervous eye on her every movement, despite the pain in his back. Lucia would kill him, literally, if he let Felisa fall. "Dragons? Where did you get that idea?"
"I saw them in a picture book at school," she stated in a matter-of-fact voice. "Father, do you think the statues will talk to me?"
"What would you tell them?" he asked. If the bishop were to see him letting Felisa walk all over his pews he’d probably have a few choice words about where Fernando would end up after his death, but Fernando had difficulty saying no to Felisa.
Felisa shrugged. "I never talked to a statue before. Tell me your story."
"I’ll tell it to you if you sit down." Fernando stopped walking and crossed his arms over his chest, but Felisa dropped right down and gave him her full attention. He followed suit and adjusted his robes grandly. He cleared his throat and Felisa leaned in closer. In another life he’d been an excellent storyteller.
"One night many years past, I studied the Bible in my office. I hunched over my desk, concentrating on a particular problem I had tried to solve for weeks, when I heard it. A thump." Fernando brought his hand down on the pew as he said the word "thump." Felisa jumped. "I sat up straight, thinking that someone broke in. Priests do not have weapons and I did not have a way to defend myself or scare the thief. I prayed and requested the protection of Dios, and snuck out of my office in the direction of the sound." He hunched over to imitate sneaking.
"Was it a thief?" Felisa asked. She gripped the pew as hard as she could with her chubby fingers.
Fernando shook his head. "No, it wasn’t a thief. I heard the sound again in the hallway. Thump! Louder." He hit the pew again, and Felisa jumped again. "I froze in fear, but Dios gave me strength and I continued walking toward the sound." He paused. Felisa squirmed in her seat. "I arrived here, in the main hall. All the lights were off and I could not see anything so I stood still at the entrance over there," Fernando pointed at the door he meant, over in the nave to their right hall and served most cathedral-goers as the entrance to the old cloister, "and listened." He put his right hand up to his ear and paused again.
Air hissed as Felisa pulled it between her teeth and held it in her lungs.
"Do you know what I heard?"
Felisa shook her head no, still holding her breath.
The priest dropped his voice several levels and leaned in as if to tell Felisa a secret. "I heard whispers."
Felisa drew back and let the breath escape her lungs. "The statues?" Her face showed her expectation.
Fernando nodded. "They did not know I was there." He looked around the room, faking suspicion. He kept his voice low as he continued his story. "Do you know the patron saints of this cathedral? Two children like you?" he asked.
The girl nodded. Her mother had told her the story of the two brave children who refused to renounce their faith and were brutally murdered on the very spot the cathedral had been built.
"They spoke to each other. I could barely hear them, but I listened hard and after a few minutes I made out their conversation."
"What did they talk about?" Felisa asked, her voice also in a whisper.
"They," Father Fernando started, "were sad that no children ever visited them. They can’t move very often, because they have to be in place when people enter the church, and the only other statues around them are older. There’s Santo Domingo and Jesus, and the mean, nasty Romans who killed them, and they don’t like standing next to them all day long."
Felisa grew excited. "Can I visit them?" she asked, forgetting to whisper.
Fernando shushed her. "You must be sensitive, cariña. Although they appear to be children, they are hundreds and hundreds of years old. But yes, they would like it if you visited them occasionally."
Once she had permission to visit the child martyrs Felisa grew shy. "Did you hear any other statues talking?"
The priest nodded. "I heard Santo Domingo talking to Jesus and his donkey. They discussed politics and philosophy."
"But donkeys can’t talk!" Felisa objected.
"Statues don’t normally talk either." Fernando reminded her. "Remember that this cathedral is the house of God and everything is possible." Fernando adjusted his robe again, knowing Felisa’s curiosity would push her to ask more questions. He glanced at his watch, noting that Lucia had been in the confessional for half an hour already.
Felisa didn’t disappoint. "What else did you hear?" she asked.
"I heard a sad, sad tale," Fernando replied. "I did not believe that statues could possibly talk so I crept up to them. They fell silent as soon as they heard me creeping along. I am an old man, and cannot move nimbly like I did in my youth. I announced myself to them and informed them that I had heard them speaking and moving around, and that they should talk to me. The children apparently found my posturing amusing, because they giggled. Their voices sounded strange through the stone, gravely and old, a little muffled. It sounded as if their words echoed through the stone before coming out into the world."
"What’s posturing?" Felisa tilted her head to the side.
"Ah," Fernando said, "it’s when you make yourself sound more important than you are in truth."
Felisa rolled the word around in her head for a minute, then returned her attention to the story.
"I asked the statues what they had seen and they all seemed to become very sad. ‘You do not want to know about the sadness we have seen,’ Santo Domingo offered from atop his marble tomb. ‘Our true selves have seen horrors,’ the children added. ‘And in this form we’ve seen things that would make you cry, knowing they happened in a church.’ I was shocked by their words but needed to know." Fernando paused a moment and looked seriously at Felisa. The tale he was about to tell her was true, mostly. Not a day passed that he did not walk the sacred halls of his cathedral without thinking of the shameful thing that had happened, the thing he had taken a vow to prevent from happening again.
"I asked them what they’d seen, and was very shocked to hear what they said. The saddest story they told me was about a girl your age, Felisa. Take care," he looked directly into her eyes. "These things can happen in any place. You must promise me that you won’t go off alone, even here."
Felisa’s face sobered, the excitement of the talking statues drained from it. "I promise."
Fernando nodded. "The statues told me about a girl, a girl who loved to come to church with her father and mother. The little girl was sick, very sick, but the doctors had hope that she could recover so her parents came to the cathedral every day to pray for her health. She wandered off from them while they prayed and looked at the statues and the stained-glass windows high above her. For her this cathedral was the most beautiful thing in the entire world, and neither she nor her parents ever thought anything bad could happen in this holy place.
"One day a bad man came into the church. He had just gotten out of prison and did not have a place to stay or food to eat, so he came to the church to ask for help. The priests gave him information on where he could go to receive aid, but he refused to leave them alone. He wanted money. He wandered around the church trying to come up with a plan to get money from the church when he saw the girl by the statue of our two child-saints. Because he was a thief, he thought to kidnap the girl and hold her for ransom. He grabbed her arm and walked with her squeezed between his arms back to the altar of the church." Fernando sat motionless. His shoulders sagged forward.
Felisa’s eyes grew sad. "What happened to the girl?"
Fernando sighed, but knew he must finish his story. "The man had strength and did not know she was sick and handled her roughly. Her father saw first that the man had his child, but he could not help her without endangering her life. A janitor heard the screams of the mother and called the police, but they arrived too late. The frantic parents had already emptied their pockets, and the priests had emptied the donation box. They laid the money at the man’s feet, bowing before him as if he were Jesus Christ. He stooped down and scooped up the money, keeping a firm grip on the girl. The father felt as if his heart would burst open as he watched the man treat his daughter like a toy.
"Once the man put the money in his pockets, he moved quickly toward the exit with the girl. He reached the door, the parents following as closely as they could. The mother held her arms out, begging for her child. The man scowled at her, and tossed the weak, sick child to her mother. The father rushed to catch her, the man escaped, and the mother fell to the floor to see if
her child was okay." Tears formed around the edges of Fernando’s eyes but he blinked them away.
"Was she okay?" Felisa whispered.
Fernando shook his head but could not find words for several minutes after that.
Felisa reached out her tiny hand and put it on Father Fernando’s shoulder. "Did you know the girl?"
"The old priest ignored her question and continued the story. "The man treated the girl too roughly, or she got too scared, and she collapsed on the cathedral floor. An ambulance came and they took her to the hospital. That is all the statues witnessed that day. Later the couple came back without the girl and they heard the mother plead to God for the life of her child. After that, the couple never returned to the church, and the statues never learned the child’s fate." Fernando shook his head. "So Felisa, you must be careful, even here."
Felisa nodded gravely.
"Felisa!" a voice called from across the silence of the church. Father Fernando winced at the harshness of the sound. He looked over and saw Lucia headed toward them. "I’m ready to go. Come, we have to buy groceries."
Felisa looked back at Father Fernando for a few seconds before bounding into the arms of her mother. The look in her eyes cut through Fernando’s defenses, leaving him feeling exposed. The child smiled and waved to him as they left the church, and Lucia called back a thank you for watching her daughter. He lifted his hand, ready to wave, but it would not move.
With deliberation Fernando rose to his feet and adjusted his robes. He had no scheduled duties that day, so he walked around the head of the church where the statues stood guarding their secrets. He moved to the shrine beneath the relief carving of the two patron saints and paused in front of a bank of candles. He pulled three candles from a box at the base of the metal shelf and lit two of them, one for each of the child martyrs.
He said a prayer while he cleared the bottom row of the shelf. He lit the last candle and set it in the middle of the row. With one final look up to the statues, he headed back to the rectory.