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It was too cold, too wet. Christmastime in the bayou felt like the dank, flooded cellar of an unheated cathedral, but that didn’t matter now. Only one thing mattered, and it lay ahead, somewhere in the windblown darkness. In his younger days, Jacob Molinari slogged through the marshes of the Po River delta in his native Italy, harvesting reeds for the basket weavers of his family’s ancestral village. Despite the passage of some thirty-odd years, his muscles still retained the memory of youth. His thighs cramped in protest, but he pushed himself through the pain. He had to move fast. Faster than... No! Don’t say it! It was too risky to even whisper the word, or even worse, the name. In this moment and for this sacred task, it would be blasphemy.
The clock struck midnight only minutes before. The most blessed day of the Christian year had come once again, briefly renewing the hopes of a weary world, but the world was unaware that lightning was about to strike twice on Man’s eternal calendar. Few mortals had any inkling of what would transpire over the next few hours. Unless he could safeguard the event, Molinari knew with terrifying certainty that it would surely come and go without a trace, and then all would be lost.
He tripped over a submerged log and fell to the muddy ground. He took a moment to collect his breath—or was he giving up? Was he overcome by fear? Could he really expect to survive? The pain, if he were to fail, would surely be beyond torture. Wind rustled the trees all about him, and he thought of the Garden of Gethsemane. The Christians say that even Jesus had His moment of doubt and pain. Turning his head to the side to breathe, Molinari gathered his second wind. The rain came harder now, washing away the mud that splashed on his face when he fell. Yes, Jesus did have his moment of doubt and pain, as any man would, Molinari told himself. And still, the man kept going.
Revived from the downpour, Molinari pushed himself up from the mud and looked ahead. The night sky to the east had not yet clouded over. He could still see the three stars of Orion’s belt. Tonight they aligned with Sirius, the brightest star in the east, and pointed to the dim lights of a ramshackle medical clinic in the distance. Bayou Memorial Hospital was one of the many rural clinics built throughout the South during the New Deal. It was deep in the bayou, miles outside of New Orleans, a place the rural poor had relied upon for decades. The facility was understaffed, under-funded, and overcrowded; the roof leaked, the plumbing rattled, and mold had taken up residence behind the cracked plaster walls. It was a humble setting for an event that would save Mankind, if Molinari could get there on time.
His eyes widened with hope, seeing the lights of the clinic ahead, and he blinked away the rain streaming down his forehead. He took a deep, resolute breath, struggled to his feet, and willed himself forward with grim determination. The pain no longer mattered. Only one thing did.
There was no fear anymore, at least no fear of what would happen on this holy night. Whatever fear was left in him was focused on the future. The impending doom was so palpable that he could smell it, a pall that hung over the world like decaying flesh. What drove him forward was the utter certainty of the disaster that would surely occur if he couldn’t make it through the front door of the clinic in the next few minutes. “That’s it. Breathe, child,” Rose said, coaching the young woman in labor, who shifted uncomfortably in the bed of Room Three. “Come on, Melissa! Hang in there. You’re gonna be a mother soon.”
It was Melissa’s first child and she was having a hard time of it. She writhed in pain, alarmed as each contraction came on stronger than the last. She wasn’t sure she could stand much more of the ordeal. Her child was stubborn. “A born fighter,” she used to joke. It was something she was well aware of ever since the first kick. And now that the time had come, the child was bound and determined to enter the world. Another contraction brought a fierce scream of pain from her. She kicked at the rusted iron pipes that formed the footboard of her creaking hospital bed. The bed lurched in response, scuffing the worn linoleum floor.
Rose had her hands full with this one. “Please, honey! You gotta be strong for your baby!” She tried to calm Melissa with a damp washcloth, dabbing the young woman’s glistening forehead and chattering with small talk to distract her from the pain. “Oh, yes, we got quite a few like you in here tonight, honey. Mmmm, hmmm. I ain’t never seen it so busy ’round here!” Rose smiled at Melissa. “Now breathe, child. Breathe...” Melissa didn’t care how busy the place was, or how busy Rose was. All she wanted was for the pain to be over and her baby to be sleeping in her arms.
They both heard the door opening. Melissa tried to see around Rose, but she couldn’t manage. Rose turned to see who it was, expecting reinforcements, but the hopeful light in her eyes dimmed when she saw who came into the room. Father Vicente nodded hello and approached them, crossing himself, a Bible clutched in his other hand. He was a short, tidy Latino gentleman with a stooped, bookish posture and a set of gleaming white teeth. His lips parted in a congenial smile. “I’m Father Vicente, the new chaplain.” Rose nodded hello, but she sighed in silent frustration. Still, a priest was better than nothing. They did tend to calm things a little, though they were no substitute for a doctor.
The door shut behind Vicente and he stood beside the bed, smiling down at Melissa. He knew exactly who she was, where she was from, and what her circumstances were, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but the child in her womb. He had no idea how they found her, but they had, and that in itself was a miracle. He had been able to verify everything, down to the last detail. When the envoy from Rome came to visit just three days ago, he took great pains to ensure that Vicente knew exactly what the circumstances were. It took several hours for the envoy and his assistants to walk Vicente through the history and cosmology of the great secret that had been festering within the walls of the Vatican for nearly two millennia. Vicente was literally struck dumb when he learned the truth. As with any good Catholic, he had no idea, none whatsoever. Despite his initial shock, which was so profound that he vomited, in the end he finally came to understand that there was simply too much at stake. Something had to be done, and if Mother Church needed him to help, how could he refuse? The Church was his life; it was all that he had ever known.
God works in mysterious ways, indeed! Father Vicente reflected with bitter irony. Even through such a humble agent as myself.
Melissa winced in pain, squeezing tears from her eyes. He gently took her hand and smiled again, but she was in far too much pain to reply. “Thank you, Father,” the nurse murmured on her behalf. Vicente glanced at her and nodded, then his eyes shifted back to Melissa. He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “Merry Christmas, my child.” She tried to give him a brave smile, but she wasn’t feeling very brave at the moment. He sat on the edge of the bed, gently cradling Melissa’s hand in his. He placed his Bible on the nightstand as Melissa clenched her jaw in a sudden onrush of exquisite pain. She arched her back, breathing rapid and deep through flared nostrils. He touched her abdomen and felt the baby move. At that moment, her water broke.
“Aahhh!” Melissa breathed, a little embarrassed.
“Her time has come,” Vicente informed Rose. “Bring the doctor. Hurry.”
Rose hesitated, glancing at Melissa. She didn’t want to leave a woman in the throes of labor without medical attention. Anything could happen at this point, but Vicente’s gaze was as insistent as it was reassuring. “She is in good hands. Go now.”
Rose glanced at Melissa and left the room. As she closed the door behind her, she heard Vicente begin to pray in Latin. “Pater noster qui es in coelis, Sanctificetur nomen tuum...” Rose caught Evelyn’s eye as she was backing out of Room Five with an empty wheelchair. The shift supervisor found herself picking up the slack wherever she could; she felt she was more of a den mother than anything else. “That walk-in’s ready to pop,” Rose told her boss. “You do up a folder for her yet?” Evelyn shook her head; she was swamped. Rose looked up and down the hallway. “Where’s Dr. Garrity at?”
Evelyn steered the wheelchair down the hall and pointed back to Room Nine. Rose stepped closer to the room and peeked inside. Dr. Garrity was delivering a baby, assisted by one of the young nurses. “It’s a boy,” the doctor announced. “Doctor,” one of the nurses said tersely, “She’s not responding.” Rose stepped back from the open door; they didn’t need anyone looking over their shoulders now. As she backed away, she saw something out of the corner of her eye and turned. A man, his clothes wet and muddy, had just come up the main staircase. He was breathing hard, like he just finished running a race. He moved quickly down the hall toward her, looking into each room as he approached. Melissa’s breathing was fast and deep and the sweat streamed off her face, staining her faded hospital gown. As he held Melissa’s hand, Vicente slipped his other hand into the sleeve of his tunic and withdrew a large ornate crucifix.
“Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, & in terra...” Behind him, the door silently yawned open. The old wood door had warped over the years and the latch didn’t line up properly. A nurse scurried past the room, and then a patient hobbled by wheeling an IV stand. Neither of them glanced in the room, and Vicente didn’t notice them, either, intent as he was on the task at hand.
“Panem nostrum quotidiamum da nobis hodie...”
He grasped the crucifix like a dagger and nudged the golden body of Christ with his thumb. The figurine and the polished shaft of wormwood that it was nailed to slipped free of the razor-sharp iron blade inside.