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THE SECRET STONES OF THE VATICAN OBSERVATORY

By Maggie Iribarne

I’d pictured myself surrounded by the best telescopes in the world, stargazing for the rest of my days. 

Instead, I looked down at a floored box of rocks. 

“This is the largest collection of lunar meteorites known to man,” Fr. Phelps told me. “No one has ever studied them, no one until you.”

***

Flipping on the overhead lights revealed a small dust-covered cinderblock room. A sink filled with a variety of dirty scientific equipment hung on the wall. Sometimes I thought I was being punished, but I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had always been an obedient and hardworking Jesuit, perhaps a tad unsophisticated. I wondered if my superiors wanted to sequester my smoking self in this dirty back lab.  

My Irish mother said we must clean up one mess in the kitchen  before starting another, and I believed thoroughly in her practice. I set to work making order, sweeping out the place, washing every piece of glassware, removing every old item. Thus I began my research-measuring, testing, comparing, logging, all those tedious words that one doesn’t think of when one is a child dreaming of becoming a scientist, or a priest for that matter.

 

My research went slowly, smoothly. I fell into the quiet rhythm of each day, listening to streamed Phillies and 76ers games as I weighed and measured and recorded all data concerning the 1000 meteorites. How strange, I thought, that the piece of rock held in my human hand could have been thrust from the moon, silently floating in space for thousands of years before finally  being sucked into the Earth’s gravitational pull and landing-thud!. I imagined its life story became very boring once it left space, crashed here, and ended up in some crusty old Vatican box explored by my middle-aged, wrinkled human hands.

 

Scientists are trained to observe and record the slightest changes. I noted the rocks sometimes gave off heat, radiating into my fingers and up my arm. When I touched their warmed surfaces, my nails seemed slightly longer, a scar on my forearm obtained as a child from a dog bite less red, and my premature bald spot grew a patch of peach fuzz. My lab plant flourished in a similar manner, its leaves a lush green, larger than before and in excess, spreading over the pot and down to the floor. Stranger still, the cat Pedrini, blind as a bat and often walking into walls, easily found my hand when I held it out in the space before him. 

To study the changes, I created a control group in the next room, placing another plant there and even installing an old yellow bird in a cage. There would be no meteorites kept in the second room. Every day for a month, I observed myself, the cat, the plants, and everything else first in the main lab and then the ancillary one, wearing a hat in the control lab to prevent the meteorite’s effects on my hair growth. Meanwhile, I continued my usual work with the stones, marking down their traits, textures, shapes, weights. After a month of  observation, the control room plant, despite the same treatment of light, water, and food, wilted. The yellow bird remained weak and frail, sitting on its perch dejectedly, exactly the same as before the month began. In contrast, in the meteorite lab, the plant flourished, Pedrini expertly batted a ball across the lab floor, hairs sprouted from my scalp. Also noteworthy, when the moon waxed these occurrences grew more pronounced and as it waned they lessened, almost reversed themselves to a problematic point, i.e., they became worse than before. I grew balder, the plant lost every leaf, faded from green to a sickly yellow, Pedrini was not only blind, but stopped eating. Then, the process would begin all over again. 

Once, during the moon’s first quarter, fevered by an emerging flu, aching and sneezing, a sore throat blooming in the back of my throat, I held one of the warm black meteorites to my hot forehead. Almost immediately my stuffed sinuses cleared allowing air to flow freely through my nose. I laughed, not believing this further evidence of the rocks’ powers.

I dragged on a cigarette, slid another stone against my chest, kidding with myself. If anyone was to get lung cancer it was two-pack-a-day me. Of course, there was no way at that moment to tell if I cleared my lungs. (I am now 75,  lung cancer free.)

This was just the first quarter moon, I thought. What could happen in the full moon? 

So I constructed the official hypothesis: as the moon moved through its phases, the meteorites’ power phased in tandem. At the moon’s fullest point, if I held a meteorite to anything imperfect or broken, that thing would rise up from its sagging state, reinvigorate with new energy. Even the dead fish floating at the top of the tank wriggled and flipped back to life. 

***

I tossed and turned In my sleep, wrecked by the power of the stones.

What about Jesus? I wondered. 

Previously, science confirmed my belief in God. Looking through a telescope, one inevitably shouts, “Wow!” Only God could create such magnitude, such endless innovation. 

Only Jesus could heal. 

Dragging myself into the lab each day, my desire to study the rocks dwindled. 

All I could think of was whom I should tell, whose heart I would break in the telling, what responsibility I had in this. I knew my fellow scientists would laugh at my discovery, my theories about the power of the lunar meteorites. 

The only answer, at the time, was to keep the rocks close, in my lab, to return to my research. By doing so I’d retain absolute control over what anyone knew.

I returned to the tedium of measuring and weighing and calculating and note taking. 

Around the refectory table my priestly colleagues asked me how my “little job” was going.

Each time, I smiled and said, truthfully, “It’s wonderful. I’m learning so much.”

“Like what?” one priest said. 

“Did you know the density of the black lunar meteorite is twice that of the metallic meteorite?”

It wasn’t interesting, and my fellow priest turned, entered into some other mealtime conversation.

***

The year dragged. 

On an unseasonably warm day in Advent I attended confession. 

I was sweating when I entered our chapel, and a bit breathless inside the confessional. 

I faced my fellow Jesuit, whom I called by first name, Patrick.

“Forgive me father for I have sinned,” I said, crossing myself.

I had planned on talking about cigarettes, snacking, thoughts of sex. 

Instead I blurted the secret of the stones. 

“Jim, you must tell someone,” he said.


“You believe me?”

“Why would you lie, especially to me, here?”

“Maybe I’m mentally ill?”

“I’ve never known you to be mentally ill. Although there has been talk about your wearing a wig. But now I understand about your hair. And if you were crazy would you be able to tell me this so clearly?”

“I suppose not.”

The silence in the small space pressed. Sweat dripped down my face. 

“You must do something important with this power. God must have created it and given you this for a reason. You must cure someone, a child! Then you must tell your secret. That is  your penance."

“Pray for me,” I said. 

When I stepped outside the church, I found the heat broken into pouring rain. 

I ran for cover. 

***

I performed my penance at a famous children’s hospital in a big city a four hour drive away from the observatory. 

I wore my priest suit, used my status to gain entry. 

I received a nametag label at the front desk, was admitted to give the Eucharist to parents and children. 

I walked solemnly to the elevator, nodding at the smiles, returning the “Buongiorno, Padre” that met me along the way. 

Inside the elevator I pressed the button for the eighth floor, oncology. 

I am still saddened by the scene. The parents weeping at the bedside. The girl a greenish white, unmoving on the bed. 

I whispered to a nurse outside, asking if I could enter, perform a blessing, give the parents Communion. 

I was granted admission.

The room smelled putrid, quite literally of death. 

The family stood in a kind of perverse, backward Nativity.

The parents could not take their eyes off the child in their midst. 

The girl’s breath rattled in her chest. 

The guilt for intruding in this private moment almost sent me running, but I persisted, offered the adults Communion. 

A meteorite burned in my pocket. 

I turned to the child, began my blessing. 

Reaching for the stone, I hid it in my right palm, unbeknownst to the parents. 

I raised my hand above the child, reciting the prayer for healing and peace.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.”

I pressed the stone to the girl’s head. 

Her coloring changed immediately. 

The sallowness drained, replaced by a blush of pink.

She opened her eyes.

Before anyone could react, I shook the parents’ hands, offered my profound sympathy, and hurried out the door. 

By the next morning the story was international news. 

Cars lined up the hill to the observatory, reporters crowded at my door. 

***

The Italian government seized the lunar meteorite collection. I was told by my superior I must relinquish the stones, that my research on the meteorites was no longer necessary. I was being sent to Kenya to teach astronomy. I was relieved.  

When I showed my African students the heavens through my telescope, they shouted, “Wow!” every single time. 

Just as the moon cycles, the media cycled away from the Secret Healing Meteorites Hidden for Centuries by the Vatican. The story disappeared.

I became old, bald, hunched. Nothing could heal the frail old man I’d become.

At the Jesuit college where I retired  in upstate New York I spent time reading, saying Mass, taking walks, teaching the occasional course. No one asked me about the stones. 

One day, I saw a news article stating the Vatican’s Healing Meteorites were sold by the government to an Italian pharmaceutical who pledged to complete my research. 

I shivered with the dread of opening closed doors. I didn’t want to be called or questioned.

I planned to leave any and all enquiries unanswered. 

I continued on in my small, flawed life, trying to forget the past, believing, as much as any scientist can, in the power of a loving God to create and heal. 

God created the meteorites, so God healed that girl, I repeated to myself like a prayer.

On clear nights I went to the quadrangle alone, bowed down in reverence for the stars and planets, the galaxies swirling above and around me. I looked through my telescope, whispered a solemn “Wow!” into the silence.

Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 54, lives in Syracuse, NY, bakes up sometimes crispy, sometimes dense, sometimes fluffy cakes of curious people and places, recurring thoughts of dread, haunting memories, and the occasional sugar cookie. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.

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