Rezar | A Short Story by Chantal LaFortune
Chantal LaFortune is the 1st Place Winner for Grade 10 in the 2015-16 Seton Short Story Contest
The date was September 29, 1917. We were traveling, at the request of my devoutly religious mother, to visit a tiny town in Portugal, called Fatima, because of some supposed apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to a few poor shepherds.
I was not really interested in religion; I went to Mass on holydays and a few select feast days, but that was it. My mother, Madre, on the other hand, prayed for at least half an hour every day, attended daily Mass whenever possible, and never left the house without her crudely-carved Rosary beads. The second she heard about the apparitions in Fatima, she insisted we pack up and embark on our pilgrimage from Madrid, Spain, to Fatima, Portugal.
The ride in the tiny stagecoach along the dusty roads seemed to take forever. Madre could just sit there, clutching her Rosary and praying, seemingly oblivious of her discomfort. I could think of nothing else but my pain. My eyes and lungs burned from all the dust, and I could feel lice crawling on my scalp under my hat.
I kept a handkerchief pressed against my face, trying to keep out some of the dust, but all of my handkerchiefs were filthy with the dust. I was terribly cramped and uncomfortably sore from sitting for so long, and I knew it would be a long time after arriving at our resting spot for the night before I would be able to stand without pain.
Suddenly, the stagecoach lurched to a halt, snapping me out of my thoughts. I heard the driver say something, and looked out the window. He jumped off the box where he had been sitting and walked to the back of the stagecoach.
“What is it, sir?” a woman who was also traveling in the stagecoach called out to the driver.
The man looked annoyed. “We lost some luggage. I was able to retrieve most of it, but we lost one or two cartons.” He shrugged. “Sorry, ladies. Gee up,” he flicked the reins, and the horses started their steady plodding once more.
That particular day stands out in my memory because we found that the “one or two cartons” the driver had mentioned had gotten lost were mine. It contained my very best dress, the dress that my rich cousin who lived in Paris had given to me.
“It looks just dreadful on me, but I’m sure it’ll fit your figure just lovely, cherie,” she had written in the letter included in the parcel containing the frock.
Thankfully, it did fit me “just lovely,” and it was the dress I wore only on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter. Madre had insisted I bring it to wear on October 13, the day the young shepherds of Fatima declared that Our Lady would prove that she was indeed appearing to them.
But now, I had nothing to wear on that day except my second-best dress. Madre and I decided that I should keep it in the carpetbag she kept with her in the stagecoach, so nothing would happen to that one as well.
We had probably traveled about a week before we reached Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Madre had wanted to stay in Lisbon for a few nights before continuing on our journey so we could pay a visit to the brother of my late Padre, Tío Juan. While we were staying there, Tío Juan, Madre, and I studied maps of Portugal to determine how much longer we had to travel before arriving in Fatima.
When Tío Juan heard about the luggage mishap, he insisted on having his servants make me a new one. The new dress was not quite as fashion forward as the one from my cousin, but I was just thankful to have a new good dress. Not that I thought anything would really happen; I just wanted to be well-dressed, just in case.
As we were departing from Tío Juan’s casa, or house, he gave Madre and me each a long hug.
“I would go if I could, Maria,” he told me. I could tell he meant it, too, by the longing in his eyes. Why were people so intent on going to Fatima to see this thing? “I’d love to see such a miracle.” He shrugs. “What am I saying? I’ll be there in my heart, through prayer. Take care of yourselves now.”
The journey from Lisbon to Fatima was a sight better than that from Madrid to Lisbon. It was definitely much less dusty. This time we rode a much larger stagecoach that held quite a few more people than the other stagecoach. We fell to talking, and soon learned that all of the other passengers were going to Fatima, too, to witness the miracle, if there even was going to be one. Since there is safety in numbers, we decided to stick together for the rest of the trip to Fatima.
At what hotel shall you be lodging, señora?” one lady asked Madre.
I looked at Madre in a panic. As far as I knew, we were going to sleep outside on the ground in the field where the apparition was supposed to take place; there was no way we could afford to lodge at a hotel!
“We shan’t be staying at a hotel; we want to get close-up views, so we’ve decided to sleep out in the field where the Holy Virgin shall appear. If she thinks that field suitable enough for her to visit, we think it suitable enough for our lodging,” Madre answered smoothly. Ah, to have the faith of my Madre!
“Veo. I see,” the lady answered slowly, then dropped the subject.
Her husband, however, pursued it. “But it will be just you and your pretty hija. You cannot possibly be thinking of sleeping out in the field alone?”
“Sí, yes, I am,” answered Madre.
“But what if there’s a riot?” persisted the kindly gentleman. “You two could be killed! Is there a señor with you, someone to protect you? A husband, perhaps?”
Madre stared at her lap. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is just us and the Virgin. El Señor proveerá. The Lord will provide.”
The Lord will provide. How many times did I repeat that sentence during the remainder of our grueling and dangerous pilgrimage. I was not one to be won over to religion by just one sentence, but even I – a stubborn teen – could feel the faith and hope in merely that single sentence.
Until the señor had mentioned riots and killing, I had never realized how dangerous this trip really was. I was not completely sure, but if God was in charge of all things, as Madre insisted He was, perhaps He wanted me to go on this pilgrimage with her so I could protect her. Oh, how I wished Padre were still here! He would protect us, and make me feel safe. I do not really remember Padre, but the few memories I do have of him are of attending High Mass with him. I also recall him teaching me how to pray the Rosary, to which he had always had a special devotion. I recall his deep, beautiful voice singing “Immaculate Mary,” his favorite hymn. Perhaps –
My thoughts were interrupted once again by the stagecoach driver announcing, “Entering Fatima, Portugal!”
As we neared Fatima, the streets grew noticeably busier. I heard all kinds of languages, from English to French to even Italian. Everywhere people were talking about the young shepherds of Fatima and the miraculous apparitions of Our Lady. Of course, I probably heard a lot of rumors and falsehoods, too, as we traveled into the town, but as I did not know much about the topic, I was unable to discern right from wrong. When we finally got off the stagecoach in the center of Fatima, we stepped off into the midst of a large crowd.
“Why are all these people here?” I asked Madre as we walked to the field where we would be sleeping, speaking loudly so as to be heard above the hubbub of the crowd.
“To witness the great miracle, Maria,” answered Madre simply.
Later, as we were laying out our blankets and preparing to go to sleep, the señor who had spoken with us on the stagecoach approached us along with his wife.
“Er, you said that you’re going to sleep out here alone, without a man to protect you against the riots,” he began, obviously a bit uncomfortable. “We’re here because my wife wanted to take a handful of dirt from the place where the miracle occurred last month, to keep as a kind of sacramental by which we might remember this miracle afterwards. We figured we’d come early and beat the crowds. But now we want to invite you to sleep with us.” Madre started to protest, but he held up his hand and continued. “We have a room in a nearby inn. Besides, it’s going to rain tonight. Sleeping with us, you’d at least be dry, and you won’t have to pay a centavo.”
Madre still continued to decline the offer, so the couple left, saying they would be back later. I looked up and saw angry-looking clouds rolling in from the East. Sure enough, it began to rain shortly afterward, and we were soon completely drenched. I ended up crouching on the wet ground, holding my blankets over my head in an unavailing attempt to shelter myself from the unabated torrents of rain and the strong wind.
By the time the couple returned, Madre and I had endured two hours of steady rain, thunder, and lightning. Finally, she unwillingly relented, murmuring, “Que el Señor te bendiga. May the Lord bless you,” as the señor and his wife helped us roll up our bedding.
Later, as I lay on a soft cot in the generous couple’s room in the inn, I still could not sleep. I kept thinking about the miracle the young shepherds – and Madre – were so certain would occur the next day. I never really got much of an education – I had to quit school at a young age and work as a maid so we could keep our tiny cottage – but those young shepherds were describing a very complex event in great detail. I mean, they probably did not get much of an education themselves, since they tended to the sheep all day every day. So maybe this whole thing was not just something the children were making up. It was too complicated for me to try to figure out, and yet, all I wanted to do was to figure it out. I could hardly believe it, but I was actually excited to see what would happen the next day at noon. Holding these thoughts in my head, I finally nodded off to sleep around midnight.
A few hours later, however, I was awakened by a commotion outside on the street. I cautiously sat up, checking to see if anyone else was awakened by the noise. They were all breathing slowly, so I figured they were still asleep. I tiptoed to the window and peered out. Someone outside was holding a kerosene lantern which cast enough light for me to see that there was an angry mob banging on the door to the inn.
“Let us in!” they yelled.
“We just need a roof over our heads for the night, to get us out of the rain!”
“Please, kind señor, we’re here to see the miracle tomorrow, and we just need a place to stay!”
On and on went the pleas for shelter, and my heart went out to the travelers when the innkeeper finally came out in his nightclothes and ordered them to go away. The poor people were pilgrims just like us – Madre, I mean, not me – who were here to see the miracle.
Once again, I lay on my cot, this time thinking about the travelers. I wondered if they would be able to obtain lodging for the night. I shivered to think of Madre and me in their place, forced to sleep outside in the rain. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle tomorrow would be worth the wait of sleeping outside in the rain all night. I said a quick prayer for the people sleeping in the field that night, and that they would not catch pneumonia as a result.
“Maria! Maria, wake up, sleepyhead! We have to get going if we want to be close enough to the shepherds to really see the miracle,” singsonged Madre as she shook me awake the next morning.
The last time I had heard Madre this cheerful was the day she first heard about the miracles at Fatima and had declared that we were going to make a pilgrimage.
As we ate breakfast downstairs in the inn, the couple with whom we had stayed that previous night told us a little about the miracles that had already occurred at Fatima.
“My wife and I are from Lisbon,” he said, chewing a piece of bread. “We first heard about Fatima probably back in June, in the Lisbon newspaper. Then in August, the young shepherds were put in prison because they wouldn’t say that this whole thing had been a hoax, a lie to draw attention to themselves. That’s when my wife and I decided to come to Fatima the next time the Lady appeared to the shepherds – September 13. You see, the Blessed Virgin told the children she would appear at the Cova on the thirteenth of every month. Last month,” he smiled, “Flowers rained down from Heaven. It was the most beautiful sight. Many people have been cured, you know,” he said, nodding importantly.
“My brother was very ill,” his wife added. “The doctors had bled him countless times, but there was nothing to be done. He came here July 13, and he was cured. Rest assured, he will be here today.”
On and on, the couple rattled off the countless miracles that had already occurred at Fatima. As they talked, I grew thoughtful. All those people were cured here, I thought. Unless they were all a hoax, and were just making all those miracles up, this whole thing must really be authentic. Maybe, I mean. I must not allow myself to go crazy here, I told myself sharply. However, I could feel my whole demeanor, my whole attitude toward the apparitions at Fatima, changing the more I thought about the matter. So in spite of myself, I actually felt excited as we walked – along with everyone else in Portugal, it seemed – to the Cova later that morning.
Due to the dense crowds on the streets and the rain, we arrived at the Cova a little late – the three children were already there, kneeling on the wet ground, seemingly oblivious of the coldness of the wet ground and the noise of the crowds. Oh, the crowds were making noise alright! Everyone spoke of a strange phenomenon which had apparently just occurred. Someone near me was speaking Portuguese, so I could not fully understand what he said. It was something queer about smoke and the shepherds.
Before the person had finished relaying the story of the smoke, I heard shouts of, “Look at the sun!”
What an odd demand, I thought. One would lose one’s eyesight completely if one looked at the sun. Besides, the sun was not out; it was still pouring rain. However, my curiosity got the better of me when the rain suddenly stopped and the sky grew bright. I looked up to see the sun falling out of the sky toward earth! I screamed, along with everyone else.
“It’s the end of the world!” someone near me cried.
“The end of the world!” the phrase echoed throughout the crowd.
People around me began to fall prostrate on the ground, begging God to forgive their sins. I glanced at Madre, who was calmly kneeling on the wet ground praying her Rosary, as usual. Why was she not worried about the end of the world? To tell the truth, I was exceedingly concerned. I mean, what about all of my sins, especially making fun of Madre and the shepherds for believing that the Blessed Mother had appeared here at Fatima? I did not recall Padre being this desperate at his death; however, he had been a very pious man, and probably had nothing to worry about in the afterlife.
I looked around frantically. Perhaps there was a priest somewhere in this crowd who could absolve me of my sins. As my eyes roved around, they met one of the shepherd’s eyes. As she looked at me, I felt a great calm rush over me. Stunned, I stumbled to my knees on the wet ground, which, upon further examination, was no longer wet. I pulled my shawl tighter around my shoulders, and realized that it, too, was perfectly dry. In fact, there was no evidence whatsoever of the rain that had been falling in sheets just minutes ago. There was not even a cloud in the sky. The sun continued to spin around and around as it drew nearer the earth. At the moment it seemed we were to be consumed by flames, it returned to its place in the sky just as suddenly as it had begun. In the sun’s place, there appeared Saint Joseph, who was holding Baby Jesus.
“Es un milagro!” I found myself crying along with the rest of the crowd. “It’s a miracle!”
At that moment, I knew that, difficult as it was, this was more than copious reward for the dusty journey, the loss of my best dress from Paris, the drenching evening in the rain, and even the fight to move in the impenetrable throngs. At that moment, I also realized why everyone, including Madre and Tío Juan wanted to endure the arduous journey in order to witness this miracle. I glanced over at Madre, who smiled at me serenely, tears streaming down her face. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was astounded to find it was the youngest of the three children.
“Olá,” she said.
Not that much different from Spanish, was it?
“Hola,” I replied hesitantly.
She handed me a pair of wooden Rosaries. They appeared to be handmade, but they were polished so much they shone in the bright sunlight.
“For me?” I asked uncertainly. She had probably noticed I was one of the only people gathered there who did not have a Rosary.
“Sim,” she replied, a broad grin spreading across her angelic face.
“Gracias,” I said, accepting the modest yet beautiful gift.
I looked the girl over from head to toe. She was dressed in a simple dress, probably homespun cotton, and I suddenly felt well-to-do in my relatively fancy dress compared to hers. I should have worn my everyday dress! Despite her humble attire, one could not help but realize how blessed and holy she was.
“Jacinta,” the girl said, pointing to herself.
“Maria,” I responded, pointing to myself in turn.
Jacinta could probably tell that I was Spanish, so she did not stay to chat. She merely patted my hand, and as she was turning away, she said softly, “Rezar, Maria.”
Madre looked at me after my new friend had left.
“Do you know what she just said to you, niña?” she asked me.
I shook my head; some Portuguese words were similar to Spanish, but I could not understand what that last word was.
“She told you to pray, Maria,”
Pray. That is what my father had taught me to do, and what he had said to me just before his death; that is what Tío Juan had said he was going to do; that is what Jacinta, the littlest shepherdess, had said to me.
Many more miracles occurred that afternoon, but my mind was focused on Jacinta’s message to pray. For the first time, I realized I had made an appalling mistake by neglecting my religion in the past, and by not believing the story of the Fatima apparitions.
I knelt to the ground, picked up my new Rosaries, kissed the Crucifix, and began to pray.
About Chantal LaFortune
Chantal LaFortune, now in tenth grade, has been homeschooled through Seton her entire life. She enjoys reading and writing, and has played the piano for nine years. She feels Seton’s challenging curriculum has fostered her love of writing, and she hopes to put Seton’s English courses to good use by pursuing a career in writing.