The Milagro in Santa Serena
(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)
By Michael J. Fitzgerald
Amid all the worldwide 2012 hoopla and speculation about the end of days - by the devout, the doomsayers and the definitely deranged - a baby girl was born in the Pacific coastal Mexican village of Santa Serena at first light on Ash Wednesday morning. Her birth came just as the church bell was clanging loudly to call the faithful to a Roman Catholic Mass in the church by the town jardin.
There was an unusually bright star still visible in the early light, though only a few people - gringos or Mexican - took much notice of it. And those who did were used to the bright starry skies that are routine along the sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific coast, thinking the star's brilliance was simply some quirk of the atmosphere or perhaps a planet orbiting extra close to the earth.
Joe Martin saw it, waking up on the beach after a late-night margarita marathon that left his mouth cotton dry and his bladder about to burst.
His six-month leave of absence from his California newspaper was nearly done; his book on the financial meltdown in California still only a notebook full of random ideas and two boxes of research materials.
And his advance from his California book publisher was mostly gone.
He stared at the bright star, wondering if the sand fleas had left him any spot on his body unbitten during the night. It would be a hour probably before Pablo would open the restaurant just above him and he could get some orange juice, maybe with a little vodka or tequila, to ease his pounding headache.
Then the star simply disappeared, or as Joe would later write, "It was as if God flipped a switch and turned the light off."
In a way, she had.
The joke was as old as the U.S. space program:
A manned mission to the dark side of the earth's moon goes behind luna and lands, but is quickly out of radio contact.
When the spacecraft emerges three days later, the commander radios the earth.
"We have good news and bad news," he reports.
"The good news is that God exists and lives on the dark side of the moon.
"The bad news is, she is black and really pissed."
It was one of Joe's favorite jokes, particularly when he was around either racists or right-wing Christians who would try to bury him with arguments why he should hate a person of another race - or visit a particular Christian church to be enlightened.
A few words about his Roman Catholic upbringing usually shut them up. If not, he would pull out the joke.
On this particular morning, he was in no joking mood as he crawled out of his light sleeping bag. The night before he had gotten into a blowout argument with his best gringo friends in the village, who were concerned about his nearly non-stop drinking - and his obvious lack of interest in writing the book he had come to Mexico to work on.
Fran and Gregorio had known Joe for years in the U.S. in San Francisco, back when he was married and a 35-year-old investigative newspaper reporter on the fast track. So when he landed a book contract, they encouraged him to come and live in their upstairs guest casita, where he could work undisturbed and yet enjoy the ocean and surfing a block away as a break from writing about the economic disaster called California.
Instead of going home - after slamming a half-dozen of Pablo's industrial strength margaritas and cursing his friends - Joe Martin had gone back to the casita, grabbed his sleeping bag and come back to sleep on top of a surfboard while he watched the stars.
Had he not been so drunk, he might have also seen when the bright star appeared suddenly in the east, like a someone threw a switch.
Moira Walsh saw the star that morning, too, though in her case it was from her bed in a rooftop palapa only a short walk from where Joe Martin had been sleeping while the bugs chewed on him.
She hadn't taken too much notice at the time. And now her attention was focused between her legs, where midwife Lupita Alvarez was cleaning her up after a birth that Lupita said was 'muy facil' (very easy) compared to any she had attended to with Mexican women in the village.
Thirty-eight-year old Moira was the first gringa Lupita had helped with a birth and Lupita wondered if all gringa women had children so easy.
Moira's best friend Carlos was in the room, too, holding the newborn in its swaddling blanket. The infant's face was perfectly sculpted and already her eyes were open, fixing Carlos with a solid stare.
"Is it usual for a baby to have its eyes open?" he asked. "And she is smiling at me, I swear. Smiling."
Indeed, the hours-old infant was smiling and it was a smile that people later would report had the power to make grown men burst into tears when she fixed her eyes on them, even the gruffest, macho and most powerful.
The smile was later credited with the power to bring people out of deep depressions and making the stingiest of people generous.
Moira Walsh's daughter, they would whisper, was an angel.
Fran and Gregorio made their way down the hill towards the small Catholic Church along with villagers and some vacationing Americans. Now in their mid-50s, they had returned to the Catholic Church - at least the Mexican Catholic Church - after a 30-plus year hiatus during which they married and raised their children.
In retrospect, they wished they had raised their children with some kind of religious upbringing, but didn't dwell on it much. One day, shortly after they had moved to the village five years ago, on a whim Gregorio sat in the back of the church at a Mass and was impressed with the joyfulness of the service, even if he could barely figure out what the priest was saying during his homily.
"It's so different from the U.S.," he told Fran that day. "You can feel it in the church."
Fran thought what Gregorio was experiencing was ignorance because of the language barrier until she went with him to a Mass a few weeks later.
Now they rarely missed Mass when they were home.
This morning they were shocked to see an American priest on the altar, standing alongside the village's regular padre, Father Alberto Morales. The American priest had a shock of red hair that screamed of Northern Europe and a face that looked like a map of Ireland. Occasionally there were visiting priests, but they usually were from other parts of Mexico and spoke in dialects even harder for Gregorio and Fran to understand.
Father Michael Spanish proved to be classic Castillian, which perplexed some of the villagers but was welcomed by Fran and Gregorio who had studied the more formal Spanish before moving to the village. Five years into living in Mexico they were still occasionally struggling with the oddities of the local Mexican slang.
"There has been much said about this importance of this calendar year - 2012," Father O'Brien said, first in Spanish, then repeating his remarks in English for the 20 or so gringos scattered about in the church.
"Time to God is meaningless. Except in the sense that God knows that our time, the time of man, is limited here on Earth. In heaven, we will be with him forever. And so it is important to use our time on earth to his greater glory.
"The year 2012 is like all years and we should always be prepared for the return of our lord, Jesus Christ. And to face him."
Fran and Gregorio listened to the Irish's priests homily, thinking how much better it sounded in Spanish and reminding them of the contrast between this slightly dour visiting Irishman and Father Morales who sang nearly every phrase during Mass and who could barely contain his glee anytime he was up on the altar or greeting people in front of the church.
It was right about then when 94-year-old Tia Mele, the oldest Mexican woman in the village and wheelchair bound for more than 40-years, stood up and walked to the front of the church where she started to sing in a powerful, melodic voice.
People called it a miracle.
It wasn't the last one that day.
Pablo served Joe Martin his orange juice straight, with a double-shot of tequila on the side, as requested. Pablo had seen Joe drunk plenty - practically every night for months since Joe had made an unsuccessful pass at a 30-something-year-old American woman on vacation who was impressed that Joe was a writer, less impressed that he was over 50 years old and had trouble enunciating any word with more than one syllabus after two drinks.
Right after that, Joe started coming in before lunch for a quick drink or two. He told Pablo he was able to write so fast in the mornings he could get his work done in an hour a day.
If only that had been true.
But last night Pablo had witnessed Joe turn belligerent for the first time - and towards his gringo friends who were forever bragging to people in the bar about the important book Joe was writing and how he was a famous author from San Francisco.
On the deck looking out at a half-dozen surfers grabbing the first good sets of the day, Pablo saw that Joe was spiraling downward to the bottom of his life. Pablo's long-dead father, a farmer from the Mexican state where real tequila is made, would have said that maybe Joe was getting ready to eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle.
From two blocks away, the church bell started ringing, a persistent clanging that made Pablo wonder if some children had grabbed the bell rope and were making sport. But it didn't stop and Pablo knew that Father Morales would not allow it to go on without some reason.
In the centuries before, the church bell would be rung like that to warn of attacks by Indians, banditos or even the Mexican Army on a raid for supplies.
"Pablo, que es?" Joe asked. "La campana?"
Pablo just shrugged his shoulders, aware though that the clanging was getting on Joe's tender nerves.
Then a 10-year-old boy best known in the village for convincing naive tourists he needed money to help his sick mother roared past the deck at Pablo's shouting that people should come to the church to see el milagro.
"The miracle will be if that kid lives to see adulthood," Joe mumbled to himself.
The boy's mother actually was a successful street vendor who thought her son was in school every day while he was out caging money.
But when a second child - a six-year-old girl neatly dressed in her school girl uniform - came roaring past shouting about a miracle at the church, too, Joe thought, 'Why not? I could use one, myself."
He asked Pancho to pour his orange juice - and the tequila - into a plastic cup to carry to church.
For the first time in maybe months, Joe Martin's curiosity had been awakened, even if it was reeking of alcohol.
It was a small miracle in itself.
Moira Walsh looked out the window at the town and heard the persistent church bell calling the village. Next to her, the baby she had decided to call Isabel, was sleeping after Carlos had cradled her for nearly an hour, talking to her about anything he could think of. Whenever he spoke, she smiled at him, and he was mesmerized by the smile.
Baby Isabel's father was long gone, gone even before Moira realized that she was pregnant. Paulo was a tall, handsome Mexican man traveling through the village, dressed a monk's garb. He told Moira he was a pilgrim on a spiritual journey, headed to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
He and Moira were alone together for just one night - a night marked by late-night drinking, smoking a lot of high-grade marijuana and endless conversation about the universe that lasted until dawn when Paulo told Moira he needed to continue his journey south to Barra de Navidad before he headed to Mexico City and the shrine.
Moira told her friends that nothing had happened - sexually - between she and Paulo in that one night, a least nothing that she could remember with any degree of clarity.
But two months later there was no denying she was pregnant.
Now looking at baby Isabel , Moira saw her life taking a turn away from living day to day on a beautiful beach, flirting with tourists and Mexican men with equal ease whe not hawking her jewelry and artwork. Now she was a mother with the responsibility of a child, a responsibility that scared her a little, but filled her with joy, too.
Baby Isabel's eyes snapped open, as if she could hear the internal monologue of her mother about the future and the joy she felt. The same smile that had so transfixed Carlos came across Isabel's face, making Moira's tears well up.
And as Moira cried and baby Isabel started making a gurgling noise that could almost be interpreted as a laugh, Moira noticed Isabel's eyes for the first time.
Her left eye was an incredibly deep ocean blue.
Her right was clearly the most beautiful shade of brown imaginable.
And when Isabel opened her mouth to give that gurgling laugh again, Moira could clearly see inside her tiny mouth.
There were two tiny baby teeth starting to show in Isabel's lower gums.
As Joe arrived at the church all he saw was pandemonium. Half the people were on their knees, their eyes cast upward, others had gaping jaws as Tia Mele would let loose with one spiritual song after another while she stood next to the priests on the altar.
Father O'Brien, unfamiliar with Tia Mele's long-term confinement to a wheelchair was perplexed by the fuss and was urging Father Morales to get the singing and swaying congregation under control so they could complete the Mass.
Father Morales was crossing himself so fast it looked like he might poke himself in the eye and didn't seem to hear O'Brien at all.
Near the back, Fran and Gregorio were working their way forward, past the worshipers to get closer to Tia Mele. She was a favorite of theirs in the village and they frequently stopped by the chat with her in her small shack on a side street near their home.
Two years before, they had asked her if she would accept an electric cart to get around but she declined. She said her wheelchair - a gift of the village many years before - was good enough. When she couldn't get around it that, she would say, she would let God take her to heaven any way he wanted to.
Today it seemed like God might let her run there, Gregorio thought.
Joe tossed his orange juice and tequila into a trash can outside while he pulled out a small reporter's notebook and pen from his pocket. He looked like hell. His hair was matted from sleeping on the surfboard, his face unshaven, his clothes wrinkled and soiled beyond even the lax standards of this beachside village, used to tourists drinking too much and dressing inappropriately.
He saw Fran and Gregorio moving up the side aisle toward the front and caught a smile from Fran that said his drunken ramblings and rage from the night before had been pushed aside. Gregorio motioned to him to come up front - and fast - and for a moment it seemed to Joe like perhaps there was some kind of medical emergency.
The Irish priest's face was beginning to get the beet red, ruddy-look that Irish get when they have been into the whiskey for too long. Then the priest actually put a finger inside his clerical collar as if to let off a little steam.
Father Morales - who always talked to Joe about coming to church with Fran and Gregorio whenever they met - looked happy and bright while he tried to talk to Tia Mele, still belting out tunes like a Mexican Ethel Merman.
Joe pushed forward, trying desperately not to step on any of the people who had chosen to go from simply kneeling to becoming completely prostate on the church floor. Joe suddenly connected Tia Mele with the wheelchair and remembered that she was a local character and a favorite of Fran and Gregorio.
As he got to the altar at the same time as his friends, Tia Mele stopped singing and the church went completely silent.
"Mr. Joe Martin," Tia Mele said in perfectly accented British English, "Would you like to dance with me?"
Fran looked at her husband Gregorio and nearly fainted.
Gabriel, Michael and Christopher sat on a white marble bench, a flock of snow white doves in front of them.
The trio's wings were neatly tucked behind them as they tossed peanuts a few at a time to the doves, who waiting patiently for each throw.
In human terms, Gabriel, Michael and Christopher were an unmeasurable distance from the planet called earth, but simultaneously actually on earth, too.
It was one of those ecclesiastical riddles one learns the answer to only after going to heaven.
If you took away the white robes and the misty cloudy atmosphere that seemed all around them, the trio looked like three retirees on a park bench in Florida, a little bored and all buried in their own thoughts.
Gabriel threw enough peanuts to the doves to feed a small Mexican village - another side benefit for all heaven's inhabitants. You can eat as much as you want.
But then he asked the nearly sleeping Michael and Christopher about Santa Serena.
"So what exactly is going on in that Mexican village? Gabriel asked.
"You don't know?" Christopher responded.
"No," Gabriel said, "I am not omniscient, like She is, thank you very much."
Michael shook himself awake.
"Careful Gabe. That sounds very close to envy. And we can't have that can we?
Gabriel stood up and waved his hand, clearing away the mist, revealing a scene of the Catholic Church in Santa Serena where Joe Martin was being dragged around in front of the altar by the ancient Tia Mele, doing something resembling a cross between the foxtrot and the Lindy Hop. He also looked like he might actually be enjoying it.
"So, what exactly is that?" Christopher asked. "And don't say foxtrot if you don't want me to twist your wings.
"I remember her. She used to travel a lot when she was young and carried my image on a medal around her neck."
Michael leaned forward, absent-mindedly reaching in his robe for eyeglasses, a visual crutch he never had need of but a habit he had picked up when spending time on earth observing the Watergate hearings.
"I see the hand of Sofia in this. She loves these little Mexican villages. Wait. I think that half-swacked guy dancing is on schedule for a suicide attempt pretty soon, isn't he?"
"Ooooh. So now who's trying to be omniscient?
Moira was wobbly as she came out of the tiny bathroom of her casita, Carlos on one arm, Lupita on the other.
Baby Isabel had been born hours before and Moira was just beginning to feel her strength come back.
Lupita gasped when she looked over at the small bassinet where Isabel had been sleeping before she and Carlos hoisted Moira out of bed for the bathroom trip.
Carlos and Moira stopped in their tracks, too.
Baby Isabel was not Baby Isabel anymore. She stood tall in the bassinet, spinning the mobile of dolphins and sea creatures around, as tall as the mobile was above the bed. Her baby hair was gone, replaced by nearly shoulder-length auburn tresses. And her baby diaper and shirt were gone, too. Now she wore a white, long-sleeved dress with gold trim that fit her perfectly.
Anyone walking into the room would have said she was five or six years old and dressed for a school play.
And when she gave Moira big smile, there was mouthful of teeth showing.
"Santa Maria," Lupita said, making the sign of the cross repeatedly.
Moira and Carlos maneuvered over to a pair of kitchen chairs, where they carefully sat down, never taking their eyes off the baby-now-child Isabel.
Isabel stopped smiling for a moment and looked at them curiously, like a child might do when presented with a new toy or something foreign to their experience.
"Oh my God," Moira said. "She's going to say something. She's going to talk. Carlos, she's going to talk. Lupita, pienso que la nina va a hablar!"
"Es un milagro senora, a milagro," Lupita cried, dropping to her knees and beating her breast as she repeated "Santa Maria. Santa Maria, Santa Maria."
Exactly what happened next was subject to debate, even among Moira, Carlos and Lupita.
Isabel either floated or stepped down from the bassinet onto the floor.
And on what had been bare feet in the bassinet suddenly were wearing exquisite golden slippers.
But each of the three adults agreed that they heard Isabel speak, each in their native language, the message exactly the same.
"Take me to Father O'Brien in the church, please."
Tia Mele sat in her wheelchair again, the same chair from which she sold small items every day, outside her home not far from the church. Many of the people in the church were already filing out, stopping to say hello to her and comment on the miracle of her walking and dancing before heading to their homes and into the village tell everyone what they had seen.
The Mexicans Catholics seemed a little more sanguine about witnessing miracles than gringos, Joe thought, his heart still pumping hard from dancing.
Tia Mele said nothing, and seemed almost returned to the way she had been, except that the deep age lines in her face were gone and her sad smile had been replaced by one appropriate for a child seeing a birthday cake for the first time.
After being whirled around, Joe had stood by while Tia Mele faced the congregation and sang one final joyful song before making her way slowly to the back of the church and her wheelchair.
Father O'Brien was sitting in the chair reserved on the altar for the priest saying the Mass and wiping his sweating head with a white handkerchief. He had given up trying to get Father Morales to control the service.
In all the chaos, the Mass was actually never completed and O'Brien was trying to figure out how to get Morales back behind the altar to prepare Holy Communion for the handful of church goers who were not leaving.
He was also trying to figure out who the disheveled man was by the altar who had been dancing with the Mexican woman. When O'Brien heard her speak English - with what he thought was a decidedly British accent - he began to wonder if he was headed down the road to the onset of the same Alzheimer's disease which had seized his Irish mother years before.
I am only 60-years-old, Lord, O'Brien thought. Please spare me and let me be of use to the people.
Joe realized that he hadn't written down a single thing and motioned to Fran that he needed a pen. Somewhere in being grabbed by Tia Mele and twirling about, he had kept his reporter's notebook safe in his pocket but his pen had gone walkabout.
And he needed to make some notes, he was sure.
He also was developing a powerful thirst for a margarita - maybe several - but let his newsman's instincts keep him at the church where he knew he had just witnessed something incredible.
He couldn't bring himself to call it a miracle. Too many years of starting out skeptical and then sliding to cynical as a newspaper reporter couldn't allow him label what he had seen as miraculous.
But what would he call it, he wondered?
As Fran tossed him a pen from her purse, he looked up to see a young woman of maybe 20 years with sparkling auburn hair walking across the jardin towards the church, gold slippers on her feet and wearing a white dress trimmed in gold that made him think of a Hollywood movie representation of an angel.
The people in the square were murmuring as she walked past. They were looking at her as if she was a movie star and while Joe couldn't understand all the Spanish, he heard the word "milagro" being said aloud repeatedly by dozens of people.
Later, Joe would write that a blind man begging by the fountain suddenly had his sight restored, a deaf six-year-old boy covered his ears when he heard sound for the first time in his life and a teenage girl on crutches whose legs were crippled from polio suddenly sported muscles in her calves and thighs and walked normally.
Joe could see the woman's eyes clearly from the front of the church as she entered, parting the crowd at the door. She never looking to the side, just straight ahead at the altar. She had a small smile on her face, though she looked serious at the same time.
The Mexicans and gringos still in the pews in the church stared at her openly with an epidemic of signs of the cross breaking out.
She stopped at Tia Mele's wheelchair for a moment and gently stroked the old woman's hair, then marched straight towards the altar where Father Morales stood with his mouth wide open, Father O'Brien clutching his crucifix in both hands over his heart.
"God have mercy," O'Brien said. "God have mercy."
He need not have had any doubts.
Father O'Brien clutched his crucifix ever more tightly as the woman approached the altar, her face changing into a shape that O'Brien thought looked a lot like his late sister Anne. His mind was racing. All his years of training as a priest, his work studying religious tracts and personal prayers had not prepared his to meet face to face with, well, what, he thought?
First a wheelchair-bound woman is singing and speaking in English - followed by her doing the Lindy Hop - and now a woman so beautiful and, well, frankly angelic-looking was coming straight to him, freezing time and space.
He was afraid his heart would burst and he would have a heart attack.
And he was afraid that this vision in front of him might appear to be a vision of heaven but in reality a representative of something much darker.
She stopped at the foot of the steps leading up onto the dais where the altar was, as if she could feel his doubts and fears. She stood very still, watching him, her facial expression changing slightly in tiny waves that washed across her cheeks and eyes, not all at once.
O'Brien was transfixed by her eyes - one blue, one brown - and couldn't get the thought out of his head that the woman's eyes were as hypnotic as a cobra's.
"Padre," she said. "Padre, let me come to you. You have nothing to fear."
And while Father O'Brien seemed frozen in place, he was in good company.
Father Morales thought his feet had turned to cement.
And Joe Martin, hungover newspaper reporter, was feeling disbelief, awe, relief and terror simultaneously when the vision in front of him turned her eyes fully on him and smiled.
"The Miracle at Santa Serena" was a best-seller before a single copy hit the bookstores and the electronic book warehouses.
It carried both Joe Martin and Father Michael O'Brien's names as authors, though much of the book was based on a series of newspaper and magazine articles written by Joe that had reached a worldwide audience.
He couldn't keep up with the demand for his writing and when his California publisher asked him to drop his contracted project for a book about the Santa Serena "miracles", Fran and Gregorio said it was truly a miracle, certainly for Joe.
Television reporters from all over the globe were slow at first to take up the story amid a world in turmoil with environmental woes, politics and war dominating their airwaves. But when the film crews finally came to Santa Serena weeks after Ash Wednesday they found nothing much to film, except for Tia Mele who would stand up out of her wheelchair for a moment on request - for 100 pesos or more - but refused to utter a word of English, no matter how much people begged or how much money was offered.
The villagers, ever resourceful, produced enough miracle souvenirs and related items that it doubled the average income of the village within weeks. And the tourists who flooded the streets were no longer just young surfers intent on finding the best ocean waves and a hookup with the sex of their choice after dark. The tourists now included many older, less margarita-inclined folks who dropped in to say prayers at the church and walked by Moira and Joe's house snapping photos like it was a shrine itself.
Moira and Joe were married a month to the day from Ash Wednesday, in the church where the angel who people claimed was the earthly embodiment of the martyred St. Sofia came. Fran and Gregorio stood up for them and both Father O'Brien and Father Morales conducted the marriage and Mass in a church packed to the rafters.
Tia Mele was asked to sing, but declined politely.
On occasional mornings in Santa Serena, Joe and Moira would step out of Moira's house onto the veranda overlooking the street with baby Isabel in their arms where they would wave to the people walking by.
Joe had found Moira that Ash Wednesday morning at her house, cradling an infant in her arms when he left the church on Father O'Brien's insistent instructions to go help a young mother who was in desperate need, he said.
The baby had one blue eye and one brown eye and smiled at Joe that day when he entered the room.
Joe later told Fran and Gregorio it was love at first sight - for all three of them.
On some early mornings, the new star that puzzled astronomers (finally named SDSSpX1 after a worldwide debate over where the star actually is) would appear suddenly in the coastal Mexican sky, then wink out sometimes just minutes later.
Other times it hung in the sky for an hour and only visible along a very short stretch of the Pacific Coast - a natural phenomenon that smashed so many established scientific theories it was regarded as a hoax by many astronomers, at least until they traveled to Mexico and viewed it themselves.
No amount of video or still photography could convince them.
Whenever the star appeared, and baby Isabel was outside and awake enough to see it wink on, she would smile at it.
Someday she would tell the world its secret, just like she told Father O'Brien.
(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)
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