Kage Baker invented holidays when she felt like it. There were never enough, in her opinion; festive observances were never out of place, so she invented many and stuck them into her personal calendar of events.
Some times of year need them more than others. December , despite its many joys, is not a good month for us, for instance: hence my family’s traditional clinging to Extreme Christmas. We always have lights in the yard, we always have a tree up and decorated; we always tune the car radios to carols-only stations and sing Christmas music everywhere we go. There is no antidote for mid-winter death and despair like a Festival of Light. The need for the Winter Hero is always great.
My December this year is rather grim. The usual anniversaries of tragedy are rolling along on schedule, and in the meantime I am still trying to recover from surgery, broken bones, and other assorted health disasters. I can’t make it to Dickens Fair, I can’t drive anywhere, I can barely type or walk, and I need every bit of tinsel, fruitcake and coloured light I can get.
And Then! (And Now!) Today in my morning comics feed (which is how I combat the news of the world) was a notice that today is Monkey Day. Monkey Day! One of Kage’s favourite observances. I have no faintest idea what the notice was actually memorializing, because the only Monkey Day Kage ever recognized was the one invented by our good friend Patrick. It inspired her story “Monkey Day”, and Patrick is one of the great heroes of our acquaintance.
Patrick is now a strapping young man in college; he was a budding stripling superhero when the first Monkey Day occurred. It’s a moveable feast, depending largely on when both parents and all his siblings were at home for dinner at the same time – but I am choosing to celebrate it today.
In honour of Patrick and his holiday, I am sharing Kage Baker’s story, “Monkey Day”, here with you, Dear Readers. Most of you have probably read it; but, I assure you, your life can only be enriched by re-reading it. Take its tale of transformative heroism to heart – warm yourselves, in this especially frigid and black winter, at the leaping fires of sheer creative determination. Oppose narrow-mindedness! Wear gloves on your feet! Eat a banana!
The faithful came in pickup trucks, setting out in the dark hours of the
morning. Some came down the highway in old sedans, from other fishing towns. Some simply rose, as Father Souza had risen, and drove five blocks to the parking lot where the parade was assembling, under sea-fog and the curious stares of surfers getting into wetsuits. It was the day of the Grand Festival of St. Anthony of Padua.
Father Souza parked his elderly Toyota and got out, looking around.
All the panoply was unpacked and assembled. Here was the statue of the Saint himself, on a platform decked with lilies, hoisted into the air on two long poles by daddies and uncles and brothers-in-law, carried in state on their shoulders. Here was the ox in its harness, its horns tipped with gleaming brass knobs. A man hitched it to the two-wheeled carreta while various members of the Apostolic Association filled the cart with St. Anthony’s Bread. This year, the Saint was providing turf club rolls out of big plastic bags from Ralph’s Market.
Here were the Queens and their Courts, teenaged girls in ballgowns, bearing flowers. Here were the Little Queens, first-graders restless in scratchy tulle. Here were their mothers and aunts, bringing out the trailing capes and trains to grace their daughters. Grandmothers now quiet and expectant dust had embroidered the Holy Spirit doves, the roses, the madonnas, the Sacred Hearts bleeding diamonds and fire in gold and silver thread on heavy red velvet. Each cape bore the emblem of its particular group, winking in crystal: TAFT ALTAR ASSOCIATION, 1908. PORTERVILLE ROSARY SOCIETY, 1882. MCKITTRICK CHI-RHO CLUB, 1938.
Father Souza opened the Toyota’s hatchback and took out his own vestments, slipping them on over his black shirt and trousers. They were a little threadbare and nowhere near medieval in their splendor.
“Hey, Father Mark, I have an outfit too. See?” The voice floated up from elbow level.
“Good morning, Patrick,” said Father Souza, as his head emerged from the chasuble. He looked down at Patrick Avila.
Patrick turned proudly to display himself. He was playing Francisco, one of the three little shepherds who witnessed the miraculous visitation of Our Lady of Fatima. There was a red sash threaded through the belt loops of his jeans. He wore a red tasseled stocking cap.
“See? Isn’t the hat great? My daddy loaned it to me. It’s part of his French trapper clothes.”
Father Souza was mystified for a moment, and then remembered that Patrick’s father did historical re-enactment.
“Right. Yes. Very nice, Patrick.”
“Because I couldn’t wear my Super-P outfit,” Patrick continued. “Because I’m supposed to be Francisco today.”
Father Souza blinked. “Super-P?”
“That’s me when I’m going to have my superpowers,” explained Patrick. “Actually I won’t have them until I turn 18. But I have the outfit already. It has a cape and everything.”
“Good morning, Father Mark.” Kali Silva, who was six, like Patrick, wandered up with a tall fifth-grader named Brittany Machado. The girls wore bandanas on their heads and carried rosaries. They were playing the other two Children of Fatima.
“Mrs. Okura says we’re supposed to walk in front of you,” Kali informed Father
“Are you?” Father Souza looked around in a helpless kind of way. “I guess so.”
“It’s on the schedule,” said Brittany. She looked at Patrick severely. “Where’s Our Lady?”
Patrick looked blank a moment and then shouted, “Oh my God, she’s still sitting in my mom’s car!” He tore off through the crowd.
“You’re going to go to Hell,” Kali shouted after him.
“You’re not supposed to say Hell,” Brittany told her.
“But he took the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” said Kali.
“Cool it, kids,” said Father Souza. “Six-year-olds don’t go to Hell.”
Both girls turned bright speculative faces up to him.
“Really?” said Kali. “Not even if—“
“Here she is,” bellowed Patrick, charging up with Our Lady of Fatima, who resided that day in a ten-inch-tall plastic statue glued to a white pillow representing a cloud.
The schoolbuses bringing the bands got there, at about the same time as the van bearing the news crew from KCLM (K-CLAM NEWS AT SIX!). The Knights of Columbus arrived, with their swords and plumed hats. Patrick attempted to sidle over and get a better look at the swords.
“You’re supposed to stay here,” said Kali.
“Everybody else is moving around,” grumbled Patrick.
“Let’s just stay together, okay, kids?” said Father Souza.
“So, Father Mark?” Brittany tapped his elbow. “My grandma told me about this little girl, who took Communion only she spit the Host out into a Kleenex and took it outside and cut it open with a knife to see if it did anything, and it started really bleeding, and she went to Hell.”
“I heard that story, when I was your age,” said Father Souza. “But I think—“
At that moment the PA system was switched on, with a deafening squeal of feedback, and a DJ named Ron introduced himself at high volume. He led everyone in singing the national anthem, followed by the Portuguese national anthem. After that he called out the marching order of each group, as the fog burned off abruptly and everyone began to sweat.
Father Souza led the children to their place in line, just in front of the ox cart. There they waited, shifting from foot to foot on hot asphalt, until the parade stepped off.
The ox behind them started forward, and the cart began an ominous shrieking that grew louder as it moved slowly down Addie Street. By the time they rounded the corner onto Cypress Street, it was painful to hear. Brittany and Kali walked with their hands over their ears, rosaries held in their teeth. Patrick ignored it all, marching along cheerfully, happy to be moving. He spotted one set of his grandparents taking photos and raised Our Lady in a high sign for them, being unable to wave.
“Cut it out!” hissed Brittany.
Patrick ignored her too. He spotted his parents and the other grandparents with them, video cameras whirring, and he shifted Our Lady to one hand and did the Macarena as he marched.
“You’re going to Hell,” said Brittany.
“Nuh uh,” said Patrick.
“Kids, that’s enough sending each other to Hell,” muttered Father Souza.
Someone came running out of the Lions Club kitchen with a bottle of Mazola and poured it over the cart’s screaming axle, and that helped a little.
“Thank you, God,” said Patrick
“You’re going to—“ began Brittany, and then all three little faces turned up to Father Souza, as to a referee.
“If he said ‘Thank you, God,’ as a prayer of thanks from his heart, then it wasn’t a sin,” said Father Souza patiently. “Brittany, don’t get so angry about—“
“Yaay!” said Patrick.
“But my grandma says—“
“Kali, look, it’s Ms. Washburn,” exclaimed Patrick, pointing.
“Hi, Ms. Washburn,” said Kali, waving with her rosary.
Ms. Washburn, who taught second grade at Cornelia Harloe Elementary, was seated at an outdoor table in front of the Surf Coffee Shop. She was watching the parade with a cool and amused smile, sipping her coffee, but there was a frown line between her eyes.
“My grandma says she’s going to Hell too,” said Brittany, unexpectedly. Both Patrick and Kali turned to stare at her.
“She can’t be going to Hell,” said Kali, “We’re going to be in her class this year.”
“Didn’t you know? She’s an—“ said Brittany, but then the band behind them struck up Louie, Louie and drowned out further conversation. Father Souza wondered what Ms. Washburn might be, to have gotten on old Mrs. Machado’s comprehensive list of the damned.
The parade turned the corner and wound its way up the long hill. At the highway intersection, two cops stopped traffic in installments as the parade came across to the vast parking lot of the church. Father Souza moved in front to lead the children through, watching the highway traffic with his pale worried face.
Someone parked the ox and got it a bucket of water, as the rest of the parade filed into St. Catherine of Alexandria’s. The band members crowded upright in red and blue rows. There were so many of them they had to leave their instruments in the garden, in gleaming piles. The trains of the Queens were gathered up awkwardly, layered over the backs of pews. Elevating the Host, Father Souza looked out over the packed house and sighed. Today, he had a congregation. Next Sunday’s attendance would drop back to the usual single row of grandmothers and three families.
After Mass, Father Souza administered a general blessing, invoked St. Anthony, and said a few hopeful words about donations for the Earthquake Retrofitting Fund for St. Catherine’s School. Nobody pulled out their wallets, though.
The teenagers changed out of their band uniforms or Queen ensembles, grabbed surfboards, and raced back down the hill to the beach. Mothers and aunts collected the abandoned robes and packed them carefully away. The adults and children went into the St. Anthony’s Carnival, that had been set up on the empty school ground, and threw beanbags through holes or pingpong balls into fish bowls. They won goldfish, black eyepatches, rolls of Smarties candy and tiny pink plastic cars.
School started a month later, though not at St. Catherine’s Elementary. No ABC cards were tacked up above the First Grade blackboard. At Halloween there were no drawings of pumpkins; at Thanksgiving, no turkeys made from paper plates and construction paper, nor drawings of Indians and Pilgrims. The day on which Christmas Vacation had used to begin came and went without hysteria, cheers or the Janitor dressing up as Santa Claus. Mr. Espinoza had been dead for five years, anyway. Valentine’s Day approached, and there were no red construction paper hearts.
The rituals of life went on, or they didn’t; when they ceased, it was astonishing how quickly they were forgotten. Saint Anthony still had his day, but for how many more years?
Father Souza sat in his office and looked out at the vacant school building, at the rows of empty windows. His gaze settled inevitably on the jagged cracks that had shot up through the old brickwork, like black lightning out of the earth. He had long since learned to accept acts of God, but this one had rather surprised him.
Phantom children moved on the weedy playground, in the plaid woolen uniforms or salt-and-pepper corduroy of a generation past. A tetherball swung listlessly against its post, as the fog blew by.
A real child was coming up the walkway to his office, followed by a woman. Startled, Father Souza rose and opened the door.
“Hi, Father Mark,” said Patrick. “We have to talk.”
“Patrick,” said his mother, in tones of reproof.
“Mrs. Avila?” Father Souza guessed, extending his hand.
“Hi,” she said. “Do you have a minute to talk to us?”
“Okay,” said Father Souza. He let them in and they settled in the two chairs that faced his desk. He returned to his chair, wondering why Patrick was wearing gardening gloves fastened over his sneakers with duct tape.
“I, ah, I’ve met Patrick’s father at Mass, of course,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t come because I’m Lutheran,” she said, amiably enough. “Well, not Lutheran Lutheran, but… you know.”
“Okay,” said Father Souza.
“My dad is away on Campaign,” said Patrick.
“Campaign is where he and the other re-enactors go up to Lassen Campground in full costume and pretend they’re sixteenth-century Italian troops fighting battles,” Mrs. Avila explained patiently. “Which is why I had to take the afternoon off to deal with this.”
“I have this really big problem, Father,” said Patrick.
“What kind of problem?”
“Well…” said Patrick, “we were supposed to make holidays, right? And so I had this really great idea, and—“
“Ms. Washburn gave them this creative assignment at the beginning of the semester,” said Mrs. Avila. “They were supposed to invent holidays. Come up with a reason for the holiday and make up customs for it, and pick a day of the year, and that kind of thing. So Patrick came up with Monkey Day.”
“Which is this really cool holiday all about monkeys?” said Patrick. “Like everybody wears monkey shoes, and eats monkey food like bananas and banana bread and banana milkshakes? And chicken strips only you call them monkey fingers? And—“ he jumped to his feet and waved his arms. “Just do everything monkey! Like playing Monkey Island on your dad’s computers and watching monkey DVDs and stuff. King Kong. Mojo Jojo. Tarzan. You know.”
“He put a lot of work into it,” said Mrs. Avila.
“And I got an A and a gold star!” said Patrick, husky with fresh anger.
“He did, too,” said Mrs. Avila. “But, this morning, he asked me for permission to take his Tarzan DVD to school.”
“Because today is Monkey Day,” said Patrick. “And I even put on monkey feet and we stopped at the store and bought bananas for everybody in my class–”
“And I asked him if he had permission to bring a cartoon to school,” said Mrs. Avila, looking at Patrick sternly.
“Well, it’s Monkey Day!” shouted Patrick, “So I said yes, okay? But then when I got to school I was giving everybody bananas—and Ms. Washburn said there was no eating in class—and I said it was Monkey Day, and she—“
“She laughed at him,” said Mrs. Avila.
“So then I said I was going to go to Audiovisual to get the DVD player, and she said no, and I said but it was Monkey Day, and she said Patrick, don’t be silly, that was five months ago, and I said no it wasn’t, Monkey Day is on February 12—“
“Because it’s Darwin’s birthday,” explained Mrs. Avila, looking a little embarrassed. “His father came up with that.”
“No, that’s okay,” Father Souza. “Catholics don’t have a problem with Evolution.”
“And she said, Monkey Day was only made up, so we couldn’t have it!” Patrick. “And said, ‘Take those rid—ridic—ridiculous things off your feet,’!”
“And he called her a Work Destroyer,” said Mrs. Avila dryly. “And a few other things. I got quite an e-mail from her. I had to leave work to go pick him up from the Principal’s office.”
“They have a behavior chart at his school,” said Mrs. Avila. “It’s set up by colors. You get a Green ticket in the morning, and if you’re good, you get to keep it all day. If you misbehave, you lose the Green ticket and get a Yellow one. If you act worse, the Yellow gets taken away and you get an Orange one. Patrick went all the way down the chart over a period of three minutes and wound up with five Red tickets.”
“Oh, dear,” said Father Souza.
“I hate her!” said Patrick.
“No, no, Patrick, you can’t do that,” said Father Souza. “It sounds as though it was just a misunderstanding.”
“She laughed at me,” said Patrick.
“I plan on talking to the Principal about that,” said Mrs. Avila. “But what has him really upset is that she said—“
“All holidays are just made up,” said Patrick, in a terrible voice. “Even Christmas. She said they’re all imaginary, that people just make things up!” He folded his arms, and glared at Father Souza in righteous indignation.
“Ah. Okay,” said Father Souza. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Up from his memory floated a scrap about Ms. Washburn: Brittany Machado’s grandmother said she was going to Hell. “I guess she’s a militant atheist?”
“And I have to say I’m a little annoyed at her agenda,” said Mrs. Avila. “I’d like to choose my own time to tell my kids there isn’t any Santa Claus, thank you very much.”
“Except Santa Claus is real,” said Patrick. “Right, Father Mark?”
Father Souza looked uncertainly from Patrick to his mother. “Saint Nicholas is real, yes. And children get presents at Christmas for the sake of Baby Jesus, of course. Some people don’t believe that, Patrick. It’s a shame, but we shouldn’t hate them for it.”
“Can we hate people because they’re mean?” asked Patrick.
“No,” said Father Souza. “But you can hate meanness.”
“Well, I really really really hate meanness,” said Patrick. “And I think what you ought to do is go over to her house with a Bible like that guy in that exercise movie and say a spell so her head turns around. Because then people will laugh at her and not listen to what she says.”
Father Souza and Mrs. Avila stared at him in mutual incomprehension. Then Mrs. Avila said, “Did you watch The Exorcist after your father and I told you not to?”
“Um, just a little. Because it happened to be on. Because I was over at Kyla’s house. And it was way back at Halloween. So anyway Father, you need to use your powers on Ms. Washburn, okay?”
“Patrick,” said Mrs. Avila, “We’re going to have a long talk with Daddy when he gets back. And priests don’t do magic spells. Is that what you made me bring you all the way up here to ask?”
“They do spells in Theo’s Dragon Gamer Module,” muttered Patrick, not meeting her eyes.
Sensing an explosion immanent, Father Souza said hastily: “I’ll try to talk to your teacher, okay, Patrick?”
“And we’re going to have a long talk with your brother, too,” said Mrs. Avila to Patrick, rising to her feet. “I’m sorry, Father Mark. It looks as though Patrick wasn’t really interested in spiritual advice.”
She led Patrick out the door by his upper arm. Patrick turned in the doorway and winked broadly, twice, so Father Souza wouldn’t miss it.
Father Souza had used to play pingpong with Father Connolly, until the old man had passed away. Now he got his exercise most afternoons by walking down the hill and out onto the pier, as far as the end, and back.
He never power-walked. He idled. Sometimes he chatted with the fishermen; today he leaned on the rail and watched the surfers, riding the long white combers into land or more often idling themselves, floating on the swell, resting on their boards. Some of the surfers were girls. The black neoprene suits made them look like seal-women out of Celtic legend, strangely arousing. Father Souza watched them regretfully, and lifted his head to stare far down the beach. Just visible at the edge of the dunes was a grove of dead trees, with silvered and twisted trunks. It was a white and silent place. When he had been a child, he had used to think that God lived there.
Sighing, he put his hands in his jacket pockets and moved on. Salt mist was beading on his clothes, chilly and damp.
The arcade that had used to be at the foot of the pier was gone, had been gone since a long-ago winter storm sent waves over the seawall and collapsed its roof. There was a doughnut shop there now. Father Souza stopped in and bought a latte, and settled into a vacant booth.
He warmed his hands on the cup and watched the early twilight falling. Something came rolling down the sidewalk, on a wobbly trajectory: a cocoanut. It came to rest against a planter containing a skimpy date palm, as though huddling with a fellow exile from tropical climes. Father Souza wondered how it had got there.
A woman was sitting in the booth across from him, sipping coffee and making notes on something with a red pen. Grading papers? Yes. He recognized Ms. Washburn.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said. “You teach at the public school, don’t you?”
She lifted her eyes to his, and he had a mental image of a figure in armor going on guard. Her eyes were gray as steel.
“I do, yes.”
“You’re Patrick Avila’s teacher?”
“Ah,” she said. “I imagine I know what this is about.”
He smiled awkwardly and extended a hand. “I’m Father Souza. I guess you did me a favor; one of my parishioners actually got upset enough about something to ask my advice. Can I hear your side of the story?”
But he could tell his attempt at self-depreciating charm was wasted. It was plain, from the look on her face, that she saw a host of blood-drinking popes and Inquisitors in phantom form standing at his shoulder.
“I don’t particularly see any need to defend my actions to you,” she said. Her accent was patrician, with a certain New England starch.
“Defend, no, no. I just thought you could enlighten me a little,” said Father Souza. “Patrick was pretty upset.”
“Patrick had a violent episode in class,” said Ms. Washburn.
“So I gathered.”
“I’ve made a recommendation that he should be tested for Attention Deficit Disorder.”
Father Souza winced. “I wouldn’t have said Patrick’s problem was paying attention, would you? Just the other way around. He was able to keep focused on the monkey thing for five months.”
“Are you an educator, Father Souza?” inquired Ms. Washburn.
“No,” he admitted. “But I know it’s not a good idea to be in a hurry to pin a label on a child.”
“Neither is it a good idea to let a condition go undiagnosed,” said Ms. Washburn. “The sooner Patrick can undergo corrective counseling, the better.”
Father Souza sat back and stared at her, baffled. “What exactly did he do that was so bad? Did he hit you?”
“Not physically, no. He resorted to verbal abuse. He kicked a chair across the room. He disrupted class to the extent that a full hour of the school day was lost,” said Ms. Washburn.
“Sounds like a pretty angry young man,” said Father Souza. Ms. Washburn flushed and took a sip of her coffee.
“Patrick was clearly acting out,” she said. “His home life, possibly. I understand his father is in some kind of paramilitary cult. If his parents encourage violence as a means of accomplishing goals—“
“I don’t think they do,” said Father Souza. “I think Patrick was angry about getting laughed at, when he thought he’d invented this wonderful holiday. Patrick’s mom thinks you were trying to demolish belief in Santa Claus.”
“Demolish is a loaded word, don’t you think?” said Ms. Washburn. “I would have said that, as a teacher, I have an obligation to teach what is true. I will not teach lies. If I can encourage my students to see through lies, I owe it to them to do so.”
“So the point of the made-up holidays assignment was…?”
“To teach my students the truth about social rituals,” said Ms. Washburn, looking Father Souza in the eye. “People simply make them up. Patrick made up Monkey Day. These events are only as real as we make them. They have no significance, otherwise. If people are ever to be free, they need to understand that. All that absurd… panoply, all that pageantry and symbolism, is a trap.”
Father Souza remembered her frown lines, as she’d watched the parade go by.
“It’s folk art,” he said. “It’s the celebration of people’s faith, it’s their identity. You ought to at least respect cultural tradition.”
“It’s a trap,” she repeated. “An impressive spectacle that keeps people from thinking.”
“Okay… and how do you feel about respecting other people’s beliefs?”
“I tend to favor truth over illusions. ’Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but Truth is the strongest of all,’” Ms. Washburn quoted. “That’s in your bible, isn’t it?”
“Third book of Esdras, actually,” he said.
“There you are. And the truth shall make you free.”
“Gospel of John. Look, you know that Patrick’s parents are pulling him out of Harloe,” he said. “They’re going to send him to Saint Rose’s, all the way out in San Luis Obispo. That’s a twelve-mile commute every morning and afternoon, and the tuition isn’t free. You’ve lost a bright student, and I know they made a formal complaint against you. Nobody’s winning, here.”
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” said Ms. Washburn. “Perhaps you ought to convince them to reconsider.”
Father Souza bit back a retort and stared at the wall above her head, trying to summon patience. The wall was covered in bright yellow vinyl, with a pattern of green monkeys linked together by their tails. They seemed to writhe and blur, under the fluorescent light, vaguely menacing.
“Look,” he said, “we shouldn’t be at odds, here. We’re both in the same business, aren’t we? We’re working for the common good. You get their brains working, and I look after their souls.”
Ms. Washburn shook her head. “Between Reason and Unreason there can be only war,” she said with certainty. He looked sadly at her, realizing that he envied her. She was young, and beautiful in a severe kind of way, and had endless strength to marshal for her argument.
“The thing is,” he said, “the pageantry doesn’t matter. It’s just something they do because it’s fun, because it’s always been done, because they want to see their kids dressed up. About God, they’re apathetic. The Unreason isn’t there, don’t you see? The, the direct, bolt-of-lightning, burning-bush moment when they know He exists– isn’t there for them. You think religion holds people in chains… Ma’am, I barely have a congregation. What harm can a few parades and statues do?”
Mrs. Washburn gave him a shrewd look, not entirely without sympathy.
“You’ve lost your faith,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I never had any. I knew. That knowledge, that’s what I’ve lost.”
“No, you haven’t,” she said, leaning forward and almost—but not quite—putting her hand on his. “You’re free of illusions, that’s all. And, once you move past that—“
“Then what is there?” he said. “You think there’s some kind of utilitarian political paradise awaiting us all? Some future where we’re all rational and accept seventy-five years of consciousness as all there is and all there’ll ever be?”
“You’ll learn to accept that.”
“Then what was the point of leaving the jungle?” said Father Souza. “We’d have been better off as monkeys. Why become creatures who can imagine a Heaven with a God in it, and want Him there?”
“Because we’re engineered to progress by outgrowing our primitive selves,” said Ms. Washburn. “And that means we must leave our fantasies behind, and our need for them. We’re leaving them already.”
“Patrick isn’t,” said Father Souza, sighing as he got to his feet.
* * *
Saint Rose’s, as it happened, had a waiting list, and its principal was unwilling to bend the rules for Patrick’s parents, since they were not members of St. Rose’s parish. There was also the matter of Patrick’s First Communion, which ought to have happened when he was six, but due to one thing and another had been postponed several times.
It was suggested that Patrick might be homeschooled for a few months. It was suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Avila might want to resolve that little matter of the holy sacrament before the start of the next school year, when (if they were truly committed to a Catholic lifestyle for their son) Patrick’s case might be reconsidered.
Patrick did not especially want a Catholic lifestyle. He did not at all want to be pulled out of class with the children he had known since kindergarten and sent to a distant school full of strangers. Nor was he particularly happy about being enrolled in a catechism class on Tuesday evenings with two teenagers, three recovering alcoholics and one aggressively friendly lady who called him Sparky.
“This isn’t fair,” he complained. He and Father Souza were sitting out on the rectory steps after class, waiting for Mrs. Avila to come pick him up. The early summer sun was low, throwing long shadows across the parking lot.
“Unfair things happen, Patrick,” said Father Souza. “To everybody. What we have to do is choose whether we’ll do the right thing anyway, or sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.”
“What do you when bad stuff happens to you?” asked Patrick, pulling himself up on the handrail of the steps.
Father Souza glanced over at the old school, where a new crop of weeds was greening the empty playground. “I say to God, ‘This is a test, right? Things only look bad. I’m going to go on as though things are going to get better, and trust in You that they will, and… and that’ll be to Your greater glory.’”
“And what does God say back?”
He never says a damn thing anymore, thought Father Souza miserably. “See, you have to believe He’s listening—and that there’s a point to all this, even if you can’t see it—“
“There’s Ms. Washburn!” Patrick flung out his arm accusatorily, pointing.
“What?” Father Souza peered across the parking lot. The library was just closing for the day; it had no parking spaces of its own, so people using the library parked in the St. Catherine’s lot. Ms. Washburn had indeed emerged from the library, and was even now making her way to her solitary silver Volvo. She walked upright as a soldier, holding her keys like a weapon.
“She’s so mean,” said Patrick in a choked voice. “I thought she was nice at first. She laughed at me!”
“I know,” said Father Souza. “But you have to learn—“
There was a shimmer in the air. All the leaves in the rectory garden fluttered, the big glossy leaves of ivy and acanthus, the red leaves of ornamental plum, the broad and pointed maple leaves. There was a gust of heat; there was a wave of overpowering smell, like a banana-scented car freshener overlaid with crushed and steaming vegetation, and a certain mammal stench.
They burst out of the ivy like brown cannon balls, screaming.
“Monkeys!” yelled Patrick in delight. “Get her, monkeys!”
But they were already racing across the asphalt toward Ms. Washburn, two dozen howling monkeys, with pink-rimmed fuzzy ears and streaming curly tails, like Curious George on crack, beating the ground with their knuckles as they came, baring their fangs. Behind him Father Souza heard thumps and the swaying of tree branches. Black hairy bodies hurtled past him, chimpanzees as real as any on an Animal Planet special. They too converged on Ms. Washburn, shrieking threats.
“Holy God,” cried Father Souza. “Get into your car! Get in and lock the door, Ms. Washburn!”
She lifted her head and looked out at him, across the advancing tide of simian rage. “I beg your pardon?” she said coldly.
“Look out for the damn monkeys!” shouted Father Souza, leaping to his feet.
“What monkeys?” she said, just as they reached her.
He braced himself, expecting to see her torn apart; but she made a negligent gesture with the hand holding her car keys, and the sharp silver keys glittered in the afternoon light, and the foremost monkeys in the pack burst like bubbles, vanishing without a trace. The others pulled back angrily and swarmed around to either side, circling, and some produced cocoanuts from thin air and hurled them at the Volvo. Its windows began to crack and star, but Ms. Washburn didn’t seem to notice.
“Come on, monkeys!” ordered Patrick, leaping up and down. From the shadows under the big eucalyptus trees vaulted baboons, with long gray bodies like jungle wolves and hideous red and blue muzzles, and white manes, and long white teeth. They roared forward in a second assault, but Ms. Washburn looked right through them. By this time the chimpanzees had found something else to throw at her car, and it splatted and stank, but nothing seemed to touch her.
“Ms. Washburn, for God’s sake!” Father Souza started down the steps to her, his heart in his mouth. The first of the baboons to reach her vanished in mid-leap, though foam from its jaws flecked her dress. “Don’t you see them?”
“There are no monkeys,” she said, raising her handful of keys. The little monkeys cowered back and then sprang again, hooting, beating her car with bananas, and the baboons bit savagely at its tires. With a hiss, the left rear tire flattened.
“Yes, there are!” shouted Patrick gleefully, as ten silverback gorillas pushed up out of the cracks in the asphalt, throwing flat chunks of it aside like tombstones, and lumbered forward. They stood upright, rocked from hind foot to hind foot and beat their chests, grunting menace. One after another they worked themselves into frenzies and rushed Ms. Washburn, who stood her ground and stared through them defiantly.
She refused to acknowledge when they veered away at the last possible moment, merely gripped her bright keys. Her unbelief was a silver helmet, her refusal an Aegis. Three of them exploded into powder, but the others attacked the poor Volvo. They put their fists through the windows, they leaped up and down on the roof.
“Go, monkeys, go!” said Patrick, running forward. Father Souza ran after him and pulled him back.
“Patrick, you have to make them stop—“ he said, just as a roar shook the earth. He looked around and saw nothing new emerging from the bushes, from anywhere in the parking lot; then something moved at the edge of his vision and he tilted his head back to see—
“Oh, no,” he murmured. Patrick looked up and fell silent, cowering against him.
For something black was lifting itself above the hilltop behind them. A monstrous face moved jerkily up from the reservoir fence, stared down with living eyes out of what was patently so much rabbit fur and rubber skin, but it was still Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, and it was ten storeys tall. Its grunts sent gusts of hot wind rushing down the long grass. Up and over the hill it came, moving unevenly but with appalling speed, trampling everything in its path, making straight for Ms. Washburn.
Ms. Washburn turned pale, but did not flinch. She raised her little fistful of keys. “There are no monkeys,” she repeated.
Over the past thirty seconds Father Souza had felt something growing in him, inappropriate joy mingled with entirely appropriate terror mingled with something else, something he couldn’t quite put a name to but which seemed obvious, something that burned though him and lit him up like neon.
These events are only as real as we make them.
He saw the boy, brilliant innocent of terrifying faith, he saw Ms. Washburn in all her harsh bravery and steely resolve. Monkeys who could envision a heaven full of glorious divinity, or a crystalline rational universe of ice and stars. Wonderful monkeys! Who could have made such creatures?
“Enough,” he said, in a voice not his own, and a blast of blue-white light and shockwave force moved out from him at high speed. It caught the little generic monkeys and blew them into oblivion like so many autumn leaves. The chimpanzees, the baboons and gorillas puffed out like smoke; and Kong itself became no more than a towering shadow, before dropping in a rain of black sand across the parking lot.
“Dude,” said Patrick, awed.
Father Souza looked at himself in disbelief. Little residual white flames were running down him like water, sinking into him as though he were so much spiritual blotting paper.
Only as real as we make them.
“Ms. Washburn, can I call you a tow truck?” he heard himself saying.
“No, thank you,” she replied, in a voice nearly as firm as was her accustomed wont. “Why would I need one?”
He looked up and watched as she got into her car. She ignored the broken glass and the fact that she had to crouch forward because the roof had been so badly dented in. The engine started up and the Volvo limped away on three wheels, shedding cocoanuts and banana peels as it went. Ms. Washburn did not look back.
Real as we make them.
“That was so cool,” said Patrick. “Except, um, King Kong. He was too scary. But, see? You can too do spells. I would have stopped him myself, except he was so big. When I get my superpowers, though, it’ll be different.”
Father Souza stretched his shoulders, rolled his neck, felt all the little stresses and tensions of years of everyday life melting away.
“You know,” he said, “You’re going to have to swear to use your powers for good, right?”
“Okay,” said Patrick happily. “Does this mean I don’t have to take catechism classes anymore?”
“Oh, no way.” Father Souza leaned down and grinned, putting a hand on his shoulder. “They’re more important than ever, now.” His grin widened. “You belong to God, Patrick.”
“Okay,” said Patrick, grinning back. “I can pretend I’m taking secret ninja lessons, all right?”
A car rounded the corner and came up the hill into the parking lot. Mrs. Avila waved and honked the car’s horn, steering around the potholes left by the gorillas. Patrick ran to her and climbed into the car.
“Was he good?” Mrs. Avila called.
Father Souza smiled and nodded. He waved after them as they drove away down the hill.
Then he went inside to have a long talk with the Almighty.