The FBI man was young but everything about him was already scuffed and rumpled: his trench coat; his black leather boots; his indifferent gaze and standard-issue swagger. He loitered on the icy sidewalk outside the cathedral clutching a camera in his ungloved hands. The mobsters called out to him as they stepped out of their shiny black cars and into the church.
“Got nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than harass us lowly sinners?”
“Why don’t you grow a pair and get a real job, huh?”
If the FBI man was unnerved by the disrespect, or bored with the assignment, he didn’t show it. Instead he snapped away on his battered camera and took long drags off a cigarette.
As she did every Sunday when she rounded the corner and the FBI man fell into view, Maria suppressed a goofy grin. At the moment the FBI man was exhaling a long plume of smoke and scowling down at his camera. Maria’s cousins smoked too, but the FBI man did it like he didn’t care if anyone was watching.
The FBI man was the only reason Maria showed up to church with any enthusiasm. For twenty years she had tried and failed to believe in God, and before the FBI man began making his weekly appearances, Sunday had been a tedious exercise in false worship. Now it meant a thrilling glimpse of the dashing FBI man, although increasingly it bothered Maria that no words could ever pass between them. A long time ago her inability to speak had baffled dozens of doctors. All the hardware was where it should have been—the larynx, the soft palate, the tongue and teeth and tonsils—but Maria had never been able to use any of it. But this didn’t worry her anymore. Her silence was a shield. No one ever looked at her, even though her father said under different circumstances men would be banging down the door to be with her. This turn of phrase scared her and she was happy to be invisible to such aggressive men. Despite this, she wished the FBI man would see her, even if no one else did.
Her parents paused outside the entrance of the church to greet Father Anthony, and Maria cast her gaze back to the FBI man. He was fiddling with his camera flash. His surveillance always ceased at the church door. She wondered if he was a religious man, and whether he liked his job. What will I do if he stops showing up? Suddenly the FBI man lifted his dark eyes to hers and winked. Immediately Maria’s cheeks flushed crimson and she hurried into the church behind her mother. The warmth in her cheeks spread down her neck and into her chest.
“Wipe that silly grin off your face, Maria.” Her eyes snapped to her mother, who was regarding her suspiciously. Maria struggled to contort her face in piety, but the warmth remained heavy on her chest.
Inside the church the ceiling was so high that Maria had to crane her neck to truly appreciate its vastness. God didn’t impress her but His building always did. Maria knew the mobsters in the parish dug deep into their pockets to ensure the majesty of this neighbourhood jewel. They were small-time hoods in the grand scheme of the city but clearly big enough for the FBI to want them to know they were watching. The mobsters sat in the front row and smelled like cigars, and their wives and daughters were painted up like dolls. Maria’s father—a baker—smelled like dusting sugar and baked cakes for mobster weddings; unlike the mobster daughters, Maria’s face was free of make-up.
Maria followed her parents into a pew halfway down the aisle. Sunlight flooded through the stained glass and the figures were alive; despite her lack of faith, Maria was impressed and humbled. The church bore numerous representations of Saint Michael—the patron saint of law enforcement—each one with its sword drawn and a serene smile on its young face. One Saint Michael statue in particular, perched near the highest window, tantalized her. She longed to caress its cheek and peer into its eyes. I wish I could fill this space with my voice.
The final pair of mobsters took their seats and Mass began. Maria stood, sat and kneeled at all the appropriate junctures. Her mind wandered. The words failed to rouse her. Father Anthony lacked passion, despite his clipped consonants and rolled r’s. Finally it was Communion—Maria’s favourite part of Mass—when something always seemed to snap in the octogenarian organist and passion would pour through her arthritic fingers. Sunday Mass was well-attended and it would be several minutes before Maria’s row would rise and shuffle towards the altar, and so Maria took the opportunity to clamp her eyes shut and enjoy the music. This week, the chords and arpeggios emanating from the organ were particularly mournful, and Maria savoured the light that filled her mind’s eye—as if the music had exploded inside her and she could see between the notes.
As the organ reached its zenith, Maria’s body hummed with pure, unrestrained joy. Warm vibrations spread down from her crown to her fingertips and toes. She gripped the edge of the bench and bit her lip. If she could have made a sound, she would have laughed. Instead, she wondered if God had finally touched her and it was time to believe in His glory.
Suddenly the organ stopped abruptly and a woman’s scream reverberated through the cathedral. Maria snapped open her eyes and was stunned to find herself face to face with Saint Michael’s stained glass face. Her brain scrambled to assess her body. She no longer grasped the bench with her fingers. She no longer felt the marble floor beneath her boots. Instead, she floated forty feet above the congregation, suspended in the air by God knew what, as if she was treading water in the chlorinated pool at the YWCA.
For a moment Maria panicked but soon she knew with complete certainty that she would not fall and shatter on the floor below. How she knew this was a mystery to her, but she had no reason to doubt this instinct. Like with swimming, she found that she could propel herself wherever she wanted to go. Her bones were buoyant and she was as light as ash on the breeze. She flew—I’m flying! I’m actually flying!—first to the left, and then to the right, and then around and around as if she were a stunt plane at the county fair. The air was cold against her legs and for a split second she worried that everyone could see up her skirt before she decided she didn’t care. She had never known such freedom. She soared to the highest point of the church with her arms rigid at her sides and fingers splayed, until she found a perch on the ledge beside the Saint Michael statue she’d long admired from below. The statue and everything around it was blanketed by a thick layer of dust, and this neglect saddened her. She took a moment to catch her breath and survey the scene below her.
The congregation was rumbling. Many of the worshippers had leapt to their feet and now pointed up to her, their bent arms shielding their eyes from the brilliant sunlight that streamed in through the stained glass windows. Others kneeled and prayed with their heads bowed. She knew everyone was talking about her, but she felt disconnected from their judgment—and pity for their lack of faith in what their eyes knew to be true.
“How the Hell is she…”
“It’s a miracle!”
The voices rose and fell like waves and Maria catalogued countless emotions—horror, awe, shock. Soon it seemed like the entire congregation was shouting but Maria was detached from it all. She reached out and caressed Saint Michael’s dirty cheek.
One of the younger mobsters whipped out a gun and trained it on Maria. “I’ll get her down!”
“Don’t do it!” His young wife cried out. “That’s the dumb girl! And.. well, shit, we’re in church!”
But it was too late. The gun went off like a firecracker. Its bullet hit Saint Michael in the cheek and Maria dove from the ledge and soared until she came to a halt in front of the bronze Jesus that hung high above the altar. A small smile began in her heart and surfaced on her lips. She was unafraid. No one could hurt her.
Father Anthony struggled to regain control of his flock. “Everyone, please, stay calm,” he cried while he stared at Maria hovering above him. “Maria, please come down. Please… no one will hurt you… and… God forgive us!” He fell to his knees and wept.
Maria located her parents far below. Her father was gazing up at her with frightened eyes. Her mother had buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders were convulsing. Maria wished she could let them know that she had never been happier. And then she saw movement near the front door and her small smile transformed into the goofiest grin her face had ever worn.
Maria didn’t know if the gunshot or the screams had brought the FBI man inside, but there he was all the same, a few steps inside the open front door, motionless and looking up at her. She was too far up to read his expression, but her heart leapt when he pointed his camera in her direction and snapped her photo.
Maria spiraled downwards, gaining speed until she was a couple feet above the stone floor, and then she changed direction and flew up the aisle so fast that she couldn’t hear anything but the wind whipping past her ears. She flew past the FBI man and out the front door, until she came to a stop at the foot of the church steps.
The FBI man was the only one to follow Maria out the door, just as she knew he would. She touched down in front of him. The snow crunched under her boots and her knees wobbled slightly as she steadied herself. The FBI man stared at her with his mouth open. Now that he stood within arm’s reach, Maria could see that his eyes were green and he had a small scar above his eyebrow. He smelled like soap and cigarette smoke. Maria beamed.
“Hi,” said the FBI man. For a moment he seemed at a loss for words, but then he looked deeper into Maria’s eyes and something made him grin. “I’m Jack.” He cocked his head towards the church. “How do you follow up a show like that?”
Maria rummaged in her pocket, pulled out her pencil and little notebook, and despite her trembling fingers managed to scrawl out three words. I can’t speak.
Jack read the note and nodded and offered his arm. “How about a walk around the block?” Maria gazed up at the cathedral, and then back to Jack’s imperfect young face, and decided she didn’t care if she ever flew again. She linked her arm through his.
As the pair set off down the street, Maria caught a glimpse of Father Anthony poking his head around the church door. Even from this distance, Maria saw the fear on his brow. Tomorrow she would write him a letter about the dusty statue. Today she would walk in the snow with the FBI man.