When visiting Ballymorris in Ireland for a funeral, a down-on-his-luck American reporter learns of a story that happened only months after his last visit many years before. A group of four teenagers, three of whom are family friends, claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Almost twenty years later, one of them denies it ever happened, another has left the small town, never to be heard from again, another has become a nun, and the fourth has been locked away in a psychiatric ward for many years. At the time, news of the visitation brought much wealth and tourism to this dreary Irish town, but as the years went by, and after the Pope refused to officially recognize it as a true Marian Apparition, what had been seen as a miracle began to feel like a curse, and this reporter believes there is more to the story than the townspeople are letting on.
As he seeks out each of the four stories, each begins to take a different and sinister turn. Surrounded by secrecy and confusion, the journalist must decide how much of what he's uncovering is the truth, how much of it is lies, and much he can trust the four witnesses-one of whom he's become infatuated with-or for that matter, himself.
Immaculate Heart is a novel where nothing is certain and everything should be questioned. Camille DeAngelis will leave you guessing what is real and what is only just a vision.
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About the Author
Camille DeAngelis is the author of the novels Mary Modern and Petty Magic and a first-edition guidebook, Moon Ireland. A graduate of NYU and the National University of Ireland, Galway, Camille currently lives in Boston. She is a vegan.
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By Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Camille DeAngelis
All rights reserved.
"The widow let out a terrible shriek, and her husband's hand fell from her waist as he crumpled to the floor. Then there came a great confusion in the house, but when the neighbors took him by the wrist, they found him well and truly lifeless. And that," said the old man, "is how Jack Brennan came to dance at his own wake."
Leo slumped back against the worn red upholstery inside the snug as if the story had exhausted him, and for a minute or two we sipped our pints in silence. He had the most remarkable ears I'd ever seen: the tops were mottled red and purple, the gray thatch sprouting from his inner ear was so thick it was a wonder he could hear anything at all, and the lobes dribbled down the sides of his face like melted candle wax.
"You didn't tell it quite so well as John did," Paudie said at last. "But sure, that's a good story no matter how you tell it."
I vaguely remembered Paudie and Brona from my first trip to Ireland when I was twelve, and Uncle John from the handful of times he'd come to the U.S., but this was the first time I'd met Leo. He told me he'd spent almost forty years making shoelaces in Liverpool, and I was still trying to work out whether or not he was joking.
"Ye'll never hear that story the way that Johnny told it." Leo rubbed at his eyes with trembling fingers. "Ye'll never hear it again. Not the way he told it."
The sight of the old man's tremors threw me backward into the afternoon. Halfway to Ballymorris in the pissing rain (as Leo called it), a crow had flown into my windshield, and just sitting here remembering it brought back the juddering of the steering wheel, the shuddering sensation up and down my arms. The wipers had flung the bird onto the highway, and when I'd lifted my eyes to the rearview mirror, I saw it, wings a mess, twitching on the pavement. A second crow came down to land beside the first, peering closely at its comrade, and I'd wondered if birds knew what to say in those final seconds any more than humans did.
Brona sighed. "Can't we talk of something other than death and dying?" John was gone, but it wouldn't do anybody any good to brood over it. She reached over and patted my arm. "What about you? You must have loads of stories from all the traveling you do, chasin' after news."
Leo dismissed his friend's question with a wave of a crinkled hand. "We've plenty of time to hear about all that." He leaned in with a conspiratorial air, drumming the table with his fingers. "C'mere, now, tell us: d'you have a wife or a girlfriend or —"
"He hasn't got a wife!" Paudie cut in. "Can't you see he hasn't got a ring on?"
Leo was not to be denied. "Well then, how about a girlfriend?"
I hid my face in my pint and waited for the moment to pass, because your love life is the last thing you want to talk about when you've left a good woman crying in her underwear only two nights before. Right now Laurel was probably in the living room, subtracting her books from the collection she'd so happily merged two years ago. Maybe she was alone, or maybe she'd invited a friend over — one who'd never liked me to begin with — but either way, there'd be nothing left of hers by the time I got home. I hated this: the knowing you couldn't give someone what they wanted, and the wishing they'd stop wanting it so the two of you could carry on with the easy life you'd already laid out for yourselves.
At least the worst of it was happening while I was three thousand miles away.
Brona proved her wise heart by changing the subject. "And how long do we have you for? Don't tell us you're leaving tomorrow!"
"I had a bunch of vacation days saved up," I said. "I fly home on the sixteenth."
"Ah, that's a nice bit of time," Paudie replied with satisfaction. "We'll show you everything there is to see, and a good deal more besides." Brona slid him a doubtful look over the rim of her glass.
"I thought I might drive down to Galway for a night or two," I said. "Maybe see the Cliffs of Moher. I don't know if we went there the last time I was here."
"D'you recall how our car broke down on the way home from Sligo that day?" Paudie laughed. "You lads were all worn out from the long day of swimming, and we had to pile ourselves into Johnny's and the Gallaghers' cars for the rest of the trip home."
As he spoke, the day revisited itself upon me: squished into the backseat of an old sedan, sand itching in every crevice, the right side of my body pressed against the freckled contours of a ginger-haired girl. We'd played together; I remembered I'd liked her, but packed into the backseat of that car with the threadbare red-and-brown upholstery, no one spoke or laughed as we had on the beach. Probably just sunburnt and cranky after the long day.
I shrugged and gave him an apologetic smile. "I wish I could remember more from that time we were here." When conversations went this way, I tended to act as if I remembered less than I did, even if the memory in question seemed inconsequential on the surface. The past was the safest place to hide anything you couldn't make sense of.
"Ah, well," Paudie sighed. "'Twas a long time ago now."
Brona had opened her mouth to respond when someone caught her eye in the doorway behind me. I turned and recognized their faces from the wake that afternoon, and once Brona had accepted their reprised condolences, I had to nod and smile through another round of Ethna's grandson, all the way from New York! (And in Park Slope, someone else was saying, What an asshole he turned out to be ...)
Brona was my grandmother's first cousin, her closest family left now that her brother was gone. When I arrived at the little row house where my great-uncle John had lived out his bachelorhood, Brona had answered the door, clutched me by the lapels, and drawn my face down level with hers to plant a thick wet kiss on my cheek. "You're twice as tall as the last time I saw you," she'd said, and I remembered how she'd once offered me a box of candy and inside was a sad little clump of Turkish delight left over from a none-too-recent Christmas. I'd pried off a piece, and my jaw went sore from chewing. "I light a candle for your poor sister every Sunday," Brona told me as she took my coat, and I hadn't known what to say to that.
It was odd to see a light burning in a dead man's window, to knock on the door and find the front room full of strangers who already knew my name, but it was a relief that I could actually understand them this time. When I was a kid, it would take me a minute to figure out what people were saying — they might laugh at what they'd said before I even got it — and those hiccups in my comprehension had made me feel stupid. My grandmother had lost most of her accent after living so long in Pennsylvania.
On Uncle John's kitchen table there were sandwich fixings, five different brands of whiskey, and a slab of fruitcake on a paper doily. There was a sense that no one would use these plates and teacups again after tonight, and yet the wake had felt a little like a birthday party. The coziness of a good stiff drink, a crackling fire in the fireplace, amiable company, and even a bit of laughter here and there — it was easy to go on as if we weren't feeling anything different underneath. John had been a good man, but I still speculated about the things in his life, the dark things, that no one here would ever know the truth of.
Brona had informed me that she sometimes did food demos for the local supermarket as she assembled a plate for me. "Here's some Gortnamona goat's cheese for your sandwich. Lovely stuff. You've never tasted the like of it, not even in New York City." When they spoke of John, they made me wish I'd paid this visit years ago, that my grandmother and I had come back together when I was old enough to appreciate things like goat's cheese and old people's ghost stories.
And yet I'd felt in the rental car, hadn't I, that Mallory was coming back with me somehow? I'd been looking in the rearview at that crow lying in the roadway when something in the backseat had caught the light: the white of an eye perhaps, as if she were turning away in tears from the heap of feathers on the wet road. I'd looked again, my heart lodged in my throat, and seen only my duffel bag there on the seat.
Mallory had always cried over dead animals. She'd found the jawbone of a sheep in the sand that day. It was only a bone, but she'd been pretty much inconsolable.
I shook myself. No more of that, now. I could blame myself for other things, but it wasn't my fault she was dead.
It was so comforting, all the clamor and reek of the pub. Brona and the men had fallen into talking of other things with their friends and neighbors — wasn't so-and-so in hospital passing a kidney stone, and didn't Carmel Keane down the road have her front garden dug up with all the plumbing trouble — and I couldn't see the television above the bar from my seat, so I occupied myself with the pictures and bric-a-brac on the walls. There were drums with harps or Celtic knots painted on the front, and a yellowed broadsheet titled Poblacht Na H-Eireann, and a vintage advertisement with a blonde flashing her legs atop a head of stout. There are only TWO things a man can't resist ... a pint of Guinness and ANOTHER pint!
Then I turned to my right, and found a newspaper article in a dusty metal frame: More Visions for the Ballymorris Four. In the accompanying photograph four teenagers stood beneath a statue of the Madonna in a grotto thick with ivy, and to the side I could make out a cement ledge lined with pillar candles. The Blessed Virgin has appeared to local children with a message of love and repentance: Orla Gallagher (16), Declan Keaveney (17), Síle Gallagher (14), and Teresa McGowan (16).
Each of the girls wore a school uniform with a pleated skirt, but the boy had on an old leather bomber that, coupled with a surly turn of the lip, made me dislike him right away. Guys like that hadn't shoved me around in high school, but they'd smirked at me, and that was worse. I studied their faces, and it hit me: I'd seen this photograph before.
The clipping had arrived in the mail one day while I was at my grandmother's house after school. It was two months after Mallory's accident, and even the scent of the shepherd's pie baking in the oven seemed horribly wrong. Gran sipped her tea as she read the letter from her brother, and then she'd slid the folded bit of newspaper across the kitchen table for me to read. She passed no comment on the miraculous happenings. All she said was, "You remember those girls, don't you?"
I did. I knew Tess, with her freckled face and her long red hair, and I knew her friend Orla, though none but the youngest — Síle — seemed particularly happy to be photographed that day. Sheila. That's how I'd seen her name in my head, back when we'd known each other.
"Is it for real?" I'd asked my grandmother, and she'd pursed her lips as she tucked the letter and newspaper clipping back into the envelope. "Who can say?" she'd sighed. "Ah, but I do worry for them."
Now I studied Síle's face in the article framed and hanging on the wall. Her dark hair fell loose and gleaming over her shoulders, and it was remarkable how her eyes could shine out of a pattern of tiny black dots. She and Mallory had played together on the beach that day, and because of her, apart from the sheep's bone anyway, my sister had acted like a completely different person. She'd been happier than I'd ever seen her, happier than I would ever see her again.
I glanced up at the header — 28 March 1988 — and felt something cold slither deep in my gut. That was the day of the accident. If I'd felt I needed to come back here, to finish something I couldn't quite remember starting, well ... didn't that just clinch it?
The funeral crowd was filing out the door now. I shook my head to dislodge the memory of the bird convulsing in the road, the gleam of an eye in the backseat. Paudie leaned over and pointed to the last girl in the photograph. "That's Tess, my brother Eamonn's daughter." He gave me a sideways look. "D'you remember her?"
I squinted at her face as if I hadn't already recognized her. "Yeah," I said slowly. "She has red hair, right?"
Paudie seemed like a nice guy, but I couldn't help feeling as if I'd passed some sort of test. "She does, indeed," he replied.
I tapped on the glass inside the frame. "So there was really a ... what do you call it ... a 'Mary sighting' here?" At the time, of course, I'd been far too preoccupied with Mallory's absence to wonder much about any of it. Visions of the Blessed Virgin. Was it like one of those statues weeping in a church?
"The apparition happened a few years after you were here," Brona replied. "It went on for months."
"Turned all of Ballymorris on its head," Leo went on. "I was on my holidays that spring, so I can tell you. First there were the reporters from RTÉ, then the pilgrims poured in from all over. The old hotel reopened, and there were new restaurants, new shops. 'Twas the best thing to happen to this place in a hundred years."
Brona shot Leo a look. "'Twas a good thing for Ballymorris, in some ways," she amended.
"The apparition," I said. "Where was it?"
"Just outside town, at the grotto above the Sligo road," Brona replied. "The young ones used to go up there after school, if the day was clear."
"Hardly anyone goes there now, though," Leo put in. "Not even to pray."
I didn't think my grandmother had ever taken us up there; I guess there hadn't been much of a reason to before this thing happened. "Was it recognized? By the pope, I mean. That's the way it works, right?"
Paudie cleared his throat. "It wasn't, no."
"Most of them aren't," Brona said. "They're reported, and someone says they'll be looked into, and then they quietly fade away, to everyone but those who've seen her."
Seeing as Paudie was related to one of the people involved, I couldn't come out with the most obvious question: did they actually believe in it?
"How are Tess and the others?" I asked him. "What are they up to now?"
"Well, Tess is with the Sisters of Compassion here in town ..."
I felt an unpleasant little jolt of surprise, as if someone had opened the bathroom door on me. "She's a nun?"
"A lay sister," Paudie said. "She's the director of the youth center over in Milk Lane."
Again I thought of her hip and thigh pressed against mine in the car that day. It was impossible to picture her grown up and given over to God. "And the others?"
"Orla is married and livin' up the road with her three young ones," Paudie replied, while Leo added in a stage whisper, "You'll know her from a mile away. She's gone permanently orange with all the self-tanner." Brona clucked her tongue and smacked him on the wrist.
"As for Declan," Paudie went on, "he left for Australia years ago, and I don't know that anyone's seen or heard much of him since."
"And what about Síle?"
"Síle?" Paudie hesitated. "Aye, she's still here."
"She lives nearby?"
"She's living in Sligo. North of town, past Rosses Point."
There was a silence here that felt awkward, though I didn't see why it should have. The three exchanged a look. "She's in a place," Leo said. "A home, like."
"She's not quite right, if you know what I mean. She's a lovely girl, you'd never see a lovelier girl in all your life, but —"
"She's troubled," Brona broke in gently.
"She was always different, Síle." Paudie tilted his pint so the final mouthful sloshed around the bottom of the glass. "Like some wild thing out of a fairy story."
Leo was nodding. "Like a selkie, aye. She didn't belong."
"She charmed everyone she met," Brona went on, "and yet she hadn't a friend in the world growing up. No one ever knew what to make of her, you see."
"She and my sister got along very well," I said. "I do remember that."
Brona regarded me sadly. "If only you hadn't lived so far away."
I looked back at the newspaper article on the wall. Fourteen-year-old Síle Gallagher smiled at me out of 1988, and I felt something whisper, You let them think you came back here for a funeral, but that's not why.
"I'd like to know more about this whole thing," I said. "Do you think I might be able to speak with the priest?"
Excerpted from Immaculate Heart by Camille DeAngelis. Copyright © 2016 Camille DeAngelis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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