Urbi et Orbi
David Connor stops just outside the gates to buy an English-language copy of Osservatore Romano. Even here, in the shadow of the Vatican buildings, the newspaper stand stocks all the gossip magazines—his Holiness’ face at the Easter sermon is pressed up against the breasts of a soap starlet.
Most of the magazines have found a space on the front page for that photograph which is still, despite its repetition, boosting sales by about a third. A bland portrait of a young brunette woman, eyes a little narrowed from smiling. Could be a high-school graduation photograph. The most famous woman in the world.
The news-seller holds out the change and sees where David is looking. He frowns and shrugs, and David nods in a moment of community. He knows they’re both thinking the same thing: Why did Maria Garcia have to be Catholic?
David folds his paper into his briefcase and gets out his documents of invitation for inspection at the gates ahead.
Expecting ostentatious architecture and morbid devotional artwork, he is instead taken to a basement and what seems to be an old laundry room. Young robed men are hauling away boxes of linen, bringing in a wooden table and chairs.
‘Please excuse the mess,’ announces Father Valerio, a vigorous man in his sixties wearing a dark and now dusty suit. ‘We’re concerned our discussions might be monitored.’ He introduces the far older priest at his side—Father Cimino, face like the parchment of a papal bull.
The three men settle into the chairs, and the arm of Father Cimino’s robe sweeps a track in the dirt of the tabletop as he murmurs a phrase in Italian.
‘Father Cimino says you must have questions,’ says Valerio, and spreads his hands to invite them.
Which is an offer of such magnitude that David can’t reply.
His first question would be—why me? But he had time to think of that on the flight. He’s an outstanding geneticist, and a reliable moderate Catholic, but he’s never been in the public eye. He hasn’t spoken out against stem cell research, but he hasn’t advocated it either. And, of course, it needn’t only be him—maybe they’ve invited several scientists out to this little shindig. There’s a simple question.
‘Could I ask if there are any other people like myself attending?’
Valerio translates to Cimino and Cimino gives an authorising nod.
‘We wish to be as well informed as possible. We hope it would not be insulting to your professional standing if you would meet the others later today.’
‘I don’t know quite how to phrase this, but—why does the church not eject Maria?’
He’s using her first name. He always winced when other people did that.
Cimino nodded again. Possibly his command of English was impeccable and Valerio was just a front, a distancing trick. If they were going to hold this meeting in a storage room for fear of being bugged, then David could be paranoid as well.
‘You mean excommunication?’
‘I don’t quite know what’s usual.’
‘There are a number of actions available to us. However, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Father Cimino is in a difficult position.’
‘Because of Bishop…’
‘Yes, because of the pronouncement of Bishop Isturiz. The Bishop, when Maria Garcia approached him, told her that no marriage would be permitted between her and her partner, the visitor.’
He uses the phrase with complete fluency, David noticed. In his experience, most people say it with a little embarrassed pause, or inverted commas around it. Or at least a capital ‘V’.
‘Bishop Isturiz than made a broader announcement on the theological justification—any union with the visitors would be sterile, so marriage could not be permitted.’
‘What about infertile couples who marry?’
Cimino rolls his eyes under their wrinkled lids. ‘Big debates, Professor Connor,’ he says in a rich, crackling voice.
‘Yes, as the Father says,’ Valerio concedes. ‘And the doctrinal decisions were reached after much consultation. Whereas this Bishop simply made up his own mind and pronounced. And he has been disciplined for it. But it leaves us in a ridiculous position, you can see, because now…’
David almost wished he had bought a copy of the gossip rag from the news stand. Without breaking the silence, he could have laid out a copy of that single official photograph released by President Chavez; the ordinary brunette, her slightly swelling abdomen, the indefinably unhuman partner at her side meeting her gaze but not returning her tender smile. Maybe they don’t smile, the Visitors.
But he doesn’t have the photograph, so he has to finish Valerio’s sentence for him: ‘Now she’s pregnant.’
‘Yes. So, there is the possibility of excommunicating her, but the theological grounds would have to be much, much more significant. The Church said no marriage, because no offspring, and now—we have offspring. Or the possibility. We are running to keep up here, Professor.’
‘So I wonder if you could give us, over the course of today, a very brief summary of some of the possibilities.’
This is what David has been asked to prepare. ‘Of course.’
‘Father Cimino unfortunately cannot attend this afternoon, so perhaps a little summary now?’
‘Yes.’ Feeling self-conscious, David pulls the briefcase onto his knees and produces some photocopied sheets. They are covered in bullet-points and diagrams—he’d had to ask a teacher friend to help him compile them, he’d not produced a document for non-specialist readers in years. Now, the handouts look gaudy and confusing. He can spot technical terms in the first paragraph that the Fathers won’t understand. Nonetheless, he passes one bundle of sheets to each of them.
‘The three most plausible theories which have been circulating are genetic recidivism, alternative terrestrial hominid, um, development and extra-terrestrial development with or without terrestrial origin.’
Otherwise known as ‘throwbacks’, ‘cavemen’ and ‘aliens’. David has had to decide on suitable terminology.
‘What are the chances in each case that a visitor might father a successful pregnancy?’
‘Recidivist humans could certainly father children with ordinary people. Other hominids such as Neanderthal we think increasingly may have interbred with Homo sapiens…’ He wondered how in Hell they would ever square this information with a doctrine which didn’t support evolution. But he was just the science man. They were the God men. They’d work it out. ‘It’s possible that Neanderthals were the source of the gene for red hair.’
‘Very interesting.’ Valerio is impassive.
‘If the Visitors really are extraterrestrial…’ He can’t stumble now, however ridiculous it sounds. ’...it would all depend how compatible their DNA is. The odds of a compatible species evolving entirely on another planet are just unfeasible. So the only chance would be if we diverged from them at some previous point.’
‘Thirteen months,’ mused Father Cimino. ‘Less?’ David frowned.
‘Father Cimino is referring to the statement by the visitors that they gestate for thirteen months,’ Father Valerio elaborated. ‘He wonders if a child of human and visitor parentage would therefore be born after—what, eleven and a half months?’
‘It wouldn’t work like that. Not just half way between nine and thirteen. There are all kinds of complicating factors.’ God, their understanding was even more basic than he had expected. Still, Valerio seemed sharp, and he would be there this afternoon to go through the theories.
‘We would like to know how long we have, you see,’ Valerio says simply.
When they broke for lunch David pleaded a need for fresh air. Valerio seemed to relax on the walk to the gates.
‘Father Cimino is a very astute man. But the issues he has dealt with in the past—communism in South America, homosexuality in America, married priests in Europe… This is so different. The publicity wears him out.’
David hears that wish again, impossible for Valerio to speak aloud: If only Maria weren’t Catholic.
‘We’ll get down to work this afternoon. Don’t worry, I have a Masters in Biochemistry. That’s why I was appointed.’
That afternoon, Valerio was indeed a thoughtful and quick pupil. But in David’s briefcase, well hidden under the Osservatore Romano was a magazine he’d bought on his lunchtime stroll. He chose it because it had the clearest reproduction he could find of that one authorised photograph. He can see in it a feature he never noticed before—the slight dimpling of the Visitor’s arm under the pressure of Maria’s hand. There was something about the pools of shadow under her fingers that had reminded him of the precise somatic sensation of touching someone you love, that smudgy, delirious warmth, the physical and the emotional indivisible. This poor teenage girl, who had been a cleaner on a remote ranch where the government of Venezuela housed problematic guests, and was now the most famous woman in the world. This girl who wanted her union blessed in the eyes of the Lord and was so unlikely to get it.
And his mind moved from her hand on his arm to a sudden vision of what could be growing inside her. The magazines had their own ideas—webbed, gilled, furred, flawed, flopping into this world like a landed fish. But he was picturing as if for the first time the unknittting and remeshing of estranged DNA, negotiating new unities, the proteins coding in the dark. Then the surprised hectic cells dividing, then the tadpole, delicately translucent, the dense darker patches under the skin waiting to become eyes. The buds, to make what limbs? The bubble of bone, housing what consciousness?
Valerio tapped the handout to clarify a point and David refocused his attention. He is the science man, in the basement room with the God man, running to keep up.
By Esther, 28 June, 2006; direct link.