By Laura Kathryn Rogers
I resented getting the assignment.
After all, I, Lawrence Fishbien, was a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. At 62, I was regularly beating out much younger reporters for choice assignments all over the world. I might have not been the most handsome or youthful, but I was one of the best.
The assignment was in Italy, and it was all-expense paid. It was in Tuscany, a part of the country that I’d never experienced. There would be time after the interview was wrapped up to be a tourist. Maybe find a gorgeous young Italian girl with lots of charm and no inhibitions. Why would I resent an assignment with such potential rewards?
The assignment smacked of tabloid news. I’d interviewed presidents, rock stars, even the Queen of England. I’d broke exclusives on world news. Yet, they were sending me to see a 92-year- old woman in an obscure village.
Simply because she claimed to be the bride of Christ.
Tabloid stuff, I tell you. Tabloid.
Of course there were the tales that sprang from the village–how the woman never seemed to age, how people had been healed after spending time with her, how when she walked in the most heavy storm, the rain fell all around her, but never touched her body.
I wondered as I spent a restless 18-hour flight to Italy, if this was the beginning of the end. When you got assigned stories like this, it usually meant that there was blood in the water. The sharks were circling. Being stuck with reporting what Jerry Springer eats for breakfast could not be far off.
We touched down, and I was grouchy, exhausted, and I wanted a drink. The village was rustic, and didn’t seem to have any of the charms of Manhattan, where I lived and from where I based my work.
I barely identified their one lodging place, which called itself the equivalent of a hotel, but mostly looked like a large mass of bricks and thatch, miles away from Florence or any other location that a sensible person would like to visit. I had noted, as we drove to the town, about ten meters from Alberese, that large herds of wild horses and cows freely roamed the area.
The air smelled sweet. I noted grape vineyards, and many small, neat plots of vegetables. People worked, but it was a casual kind of labor, as if they were in a hurry for nothing. The people at my accommodations greeted me with a casual curiosity, but nothing more. Looking around, I was struck with the sense of going back in time, maybe even to medieval times. I was brought to my room, told about meal times, and left alone.
That evening, even my journalist instincts were put on hold, as I lay down on the surprisingly comfortable bed, and fell asleep almost instantly. When I woke, it was mid-morning. I opened a window and stood, looking out. From a distance, I heard a lilting song, very beautiful, feminine and moving. Was it from the local church parish? I could not be sure.
A knock interrupted my musing. The man at the door was very slender and tall, his face a mass of sharp points, high cheek-bones and bushy dark eye-brows. He spoke excellent English, which was just as well, because the most Italian I knew was a few swear words that I doubted would be appropriate.
“I am Stefano Pieri, the guide the Times paid for,” He said, “I’m supposed to take you to Sister Maria. She’s willing to spend an hour talking to you, no more.” He seemed in a hurry to go. “You are fortunate. She usually turns strangers away, at least ones with paper and pens.” He gave me a wolfish grin, and gestured towards the doorway. “Are we ready?”
I decided we were. On the way out, we were offered warm cloth-covered items that smelled wonderful. As I got in Stefano’s vehicle, an ancient gray Jeep, I opened the cloth and found fresh pastry covered with what appeared to be honey.
I took a bite, and all the food I’d ever eaten faded into memory. This was like some food of the gods. Stefano grinned again (the man grinned too much in my opinion) as he saw me savor this food, and handed me a bottle of warm liquid. It was wine, of course, and the warmth of it did not take away from the taste. It was sweet and sharp all at the same time. “See, we do some things right,” He said, “Maybe not New York City, but we hold our own.”
I felt a bit ashamed. Was my initial disdain so obvious? I swallowed a bite of my excellent breakfast and cleared my throat. “I’ve never had anything so wonderful.” I said, honestly.
Stefano nodded. “The village women are up before sunrise, baking for their families and the village guests. Some of the recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter for centuries.”
He then settled into a satisfied kind of silence, navigating the increasingly rough road leaving the village and headed up into the mountains nearby. I wasn’t much of a talker by nature, but had picked up the habit of small talk in my noisy home city. Years there had made me see silence as an enemy. However, in this quiet, pastoral place, a sense of peace filled me, and I felt no need to speak.
Time passed. Miles were covered, and finally Stefano spoke.
“So what would you like to know?” He asked. “About Sister Maria, that is. You haven’t asked the usual questions. Why we honor her. What she claims to be. The basis of her claim.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “Honestly, I am not sure what I want to know, which is unusual. Normally I’d have a few pages of notes. She thinks she is the bride of Christ. Back in my neighborhood, we’d call that a nun. What’s so special about that?”
Stefano laughed sharply. “Sister Maria is so much more than a nun. She can heal by touching you. Any wild creature that comes within sight of her immediately becomes docile, and allows themselves to be touched. When we had a drought, three years ago, she asked for it to be lifted, and it was.”
“Who did she ask?” I said and noticed an expression of exaggerated patience on my guide’s face.
“Who do you think, Man? Her husband of course.”
“You mean Jesus Christ.” I say. He nods. “Wouldn’t that be kind of difficult? Didn’t he ascend upstairs about 2000 years ago?”
“Sometimes he comes back.” Stefano said shortly. “I’ve never seen it, but there are many stories. The cave dwellers talk about it. Do you know, that even now there are those who would rather live in a cave than in a house?”
He turned on a very rocky one-lane road, and we jolted in our seats as he took sharp turns expertly. “The old ones talk about her as well. I’ve only seen her a few times. She looks the same as when I was a young boy. She never changes.”
He stopped the jeep where the road became a trail. “This is where we walk. It’s not too much further.”
I had brought the small remains of my breakfast with me, and the small cask of wine, which revived me as I walked next to my guide. Just as I started to be winded, we came out into a circular clearing. There were half a dozen provincial looking thatch cottages, a central fire-pit in the middle and several little children running around, playing the whooping and gleeful games of childhood.
The adults, mostly women, ignored us, as if everyday they saw a strange American and his guide. Finally, the oldest woman, with a face so crisscrossed with age that her features seemed to sink into the wrinkles, approached us. Her eyes, bright blue (the only youthful thing about her), lit up at the sight of Stefano.
“This is the one you told me about, is it?” She asked, her voice heavily accented, but understandable. “Sister is….over there. She is waiting. But she wants to see the stranger alone.”
I went the way that she pointed, to a cottage that was slightly larger than the others but not more ornate. On either side of the doorway, I noted a thriving vegetable garden. And coming from the hut, I heard the song again, the one I had heard that morning down in the village. The same pure, feminine voice. Could a song travel that far? Or, had the singer been in the village this morning?
I felt the urge to knock on the simple door, but before I could, a voice summoned me. The voice of the singer.
I was speechless when I saw her. The girl who summoned me looked to be in her early 20’s and was beautiful in the way that Aphrodite might have been. She had her long, black hair rolled into an intricate style on her head. Her olive skin was lush, free of any indication of age. Her eyes were bright and intuitive. I waited for her to take me to Sister Maria, but wouldn’t have minded if she delayed that a bit.
“You are the stranger, the one who wants to know me.” She said, simply.
I nearly choked on nothing. “You are supposed to be….are you….her?”
A faint smile played about well-shaped lips that lipstick had never touched, and had never needed to. This was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
“I am 92 years old. And yes, I said I wanted to meet you alone. I am Sister Maria.”
It’s hard to remember a lot of that first visit. She talked, I listened, but mostly I drank in her beauty, the cadence of her lovely voice, the gentle, yet powerful way she had about her. She talked about her life there, her daily work within the village, her singing which summoned villagers to vespers. The only subject we didn’t discuss was the one that I’d been sent to ask about.
Finally, it was she, not I, that brought it up.
“You have been told about my special….relationship.” She said, simply. I nodded. “You want to know what it means.” I nodded again, feeling a superstitious thrill rising up in me.
“I was the daughter of a shepherd. Papa has been dead so many years. He was a wonderful man. Very stern, but he wanted his daughter to be pure, and with a spotless reputation. Mother taught me to read and write. Father taught me how to plant a garden and sew. I was their only child and they cherished me.”
“Many young men came to visit to ask for my hand, but my parents refused them all. Eventually they stopped coming. Mama died, then Papa. I was alone in our little hut, but I had everything I needed. I raised and harvested my food. Papa had left me some gold coins. I sold wool from the sheep. It was a joyful life.”
“One day, I was out with the sheep and was sleepy, gathering flowers. I sat under a tree and napped. I dreamed of a young man, the most handsome one that I ever had seen. His eyes were full of love, he had a light about his face. He said to me, “I choose you.”
“When I awoke, the sheep were all around me, lying down, peaceful and all accounted for. At my feet was a banquet of fruit and vegetables. There was a chalice of sweet wine. I ate, and refreshed myself. Then, I noticed. On my hand, there was this ring.”
She stretched out a beautiful, youthful looking hand, and I saw a delicate, exquisitely carved silver wedding ring.
Sister Maria continued to speak. “After that, people would come to me. Some were ill. Some were lonely. Some were angry. They would sit with me, and I would talk to them. I would look at my ring and know what to say. Or as they were leaving, I would touch their hands and they would immediately recover.”
“Over the years, he comes to me. We have wonderful talks. He sings songs of love to me. I sing to him in reply. What you heard before you came in, that’s the newest song I composed.”
“So, why have you never aged? I asked. “You’re supposed to be 92.”
“Yes.” She said simply. “After his visits, I wake up feeling renewed. “I suppose I need to be. The people keep coming, just like you did.” She leaned close, her breath making me think of the scent of roses. “What is your need?” She asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t think I have one. Except to bring back a good story. I think my supervisors took this story too literally. You said you dreamed of Christ. They thought you had a relationship with the real guy, outside of dreams.”
“I do.” She said, sweetly. “Maybe I should be more clear. I sometimes call them dreams, because I really can’t give you a word for what they really are. When he visits, he surrounds me, with light, joy, with love. He tells me about the people who will come to me and what they will need. He told me about you. He even told me that you would have too much pride to ask for the help you need.”
She then grabbed my hand nearest to her, and I felt a shock like electricity, but not painful. She closed her eyes and the room suddenly seemed brighter. She began to sing. I tried to get loose, but her grip was too firm to break.
Memories surged through my mind. My divorce, my distant relationship with my two sons, my feeling of separation and meaningless striving. My fear of coming age and possible dependence on a world that could be cruel. I felt it all, and heard myself cry out, tears pouring down my face.
Then, Sister Maria let go.
For a second, I saw a very old woman in front of me, ancient beyond ancient, fragile. Then the light again brightened, burning at my eyes. I shut them tight, and backed into the opening of the hut. The sensation of light faded. I opened my eyes. The young, beautiful woman was back.
“When you go back to the village, you are to call your sons. They will listen to you. They will no longer be bitter. Call your wife. She has forgiven you. And…..when you go home, go to your doctor. I think he will tell you the ulcer is gone.” She smiled warmly. “Go now…go in peace.”
I found Stefano playing in the clearing with the young children, chasing them, letting them chase him. He looked at me, and for a moment, had an expression of concern. “Can you eat something?” He asked. I looked at him, dumb for a moment. “Of course. Thank you.”
We ate panzella, drank more of the delicious wine. I had a feeling inside of me akin to excitement. My body was tingling with energy that I had never felt before. We said goodbye to the villagers, and rode down the mountain in silence.
When I got back to my room, I went to wash the dust from my face. I dropped my washcloth when I saw my reflection in the mirror. I had came to Tuscany with a full head of silver hair, my face showing the march of time. The man that looked at me from the mirror had the dark brown hair of my youth. The face was that of the same young man.
I sat down, weak, from the surprise of it all, and tried to figure it out. Something had happened up there with Sister Maria, something. I remembered what she had said to me, and knew that I had to follow her instructions. I picked up the phone and made three calls.
The following day, I should have been writing my article about Sister Maria. I could not. I sat outside my lodging place and contently watched the village go about its business. I thought about the night before. My sons and I had talked. We covered years of parental neglect and their resentment. I asked their forgiveness, they surprised me by agreeing to give it. We made plans for when I would return. I would meet my grandchildren for the first time.
My ex-wife had told me that she still loved me, and wanted us to meet for a meal and conversation. I agreed. When I lay down to sleep, it was easy, deep sleep. I woke in the morning with a refreshment I had never felt before.
There was enough for an amazing story, but the problem was, convincing my audience. If I did straight reporting, it would still sound like science fiction. I was known for my hard-hitting factual journalism. I knew that this story had to have further verification.
I had to go back.
Later, that afternoon, without contacting Stefano, I borrowed a sturdy truck with four-wheel drive, and headed out of the village. It was nearly nightfall before I reached the path where I had to walk. This time, the place had many people, and they all seemed to notice and gawk at me. The formerly friendly old woman who had greeted us before, came up to me with a stern look on her face. “Why are you here?” She asked.
“I want to see Sister Maria.” I insisted.
“No, no. You had your time with her. She can’t help you anymore. It is forbidden.”
Nothing I said would move her. She allowed me to sleep there for the evening, stating that trying to get back to the village at night could get me lost or worse. I settled into a comfortable pallet, having been fed an excellent supper of goat’s milk, sweet wine and Pappa el papdormo. I slept almost immediately.
I awoke much later. Darkness and silence were all around me like a thick blanket. The fire was down to coals in the center of the settlement. Yet, something woke me. Was it a song?
Yes, it was a song, the one I heard in the village and later when I met Sister Maria. When I stood there, looking about, the song faded. Was it a dream?
I walked softly to the doorway of Sister Maria. Gently, I tried the door. It opened easily.
When the door opened, I was stunned with the presence of intense light. But, a different light than what I recalled. This light enfolded a very old woman, who seemed to have difficulty standing up. She stood in a nightgown, arms outstretched. The shape of another individual stood next to her, reaching to take her into an embrace.
As I stared, the shape took on further human form. I saw that it was the form of the young man she had described to me.
“It is time, my beloved.” He said to Sister Maria, stepping back and touching her face tenderly. Her countenance began to change. She was once again the young girl, the ageless beauty.
“But who will do my work?” She asked the young man, who looked at her intently, gentleness on his face.
“Another will be chosen. It’s time to come home, my bride.”
I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to. I stood transfixed as the young man and Sister Maria rose from the ground, maintained their places in midair for a moment, and finally both took notice of me.
Sister Maria was not angry for the invasion of her privacy. “Tomorrow, they will find that I’ve disappeared,” She said. “Tell no one what you have seen.”
I gulped out agreement, and they began to fade away until only the light in the room remained. Then, that also faded.
I went back to New York the following day. Met with my sons. Had dinner with my ex-wife. Made an appointment with my doctor, who couldn’t believe the way I looked thirty years younger. The way my ulcer had seemed to disappear.
I never completed the article. Ultimately, to keep from being in a lawsuit, I repaid the paper the expenses of the trip. By that time, I’d re-married my wife, had retired, and was watching my youngest grandchildren frolic at a beach house I’d invested in years before, but had never used. Until now.
And, as time went by, whenever I thought about the trip and the events which occurred, and remembered Sister Maria, all I could think of was how beautiful she was.
I should, however, say one last thing.
About a year later, going through the Sunday newspaper, I read a human interest story. About a young woman living in rural Oklahoma. Recently, a number of miracles had been attributed to her.
The people living around her, didn’t call her by her name, but simply, “the Bride.”